Yoga for heart health
A friend recently asked me if my heart felt “open” and “in that moment”. As I journeyed within, my body’s natural inclination was to take a deep full breath inwards. As my lungs expanded my heart felt free and from this “space” I was able to ask myself whether my heart was open: Am I approaching each day with a fresh perspective, with open arms and acceptance for new love discovery? Am I capable of sharing openly and truthfully my deepest fears and feelings with friends and family?
Getting in touch with your heart and asking yourself “where you are at” helps you to stay in touch with personal truths and passions and reminds you to live from love and not from fear. Getting in touch with your heart also allows you the time for a physical heart “check-up”. Taking the time to stop and listen to your heart, observing any irregularities in your pulse, any signs of stress, tightness in your chest or shortness in the rhythm of your breathing, could help prevent the onset of heart disease and ultimately save your life.
The Australian Heart Foundation reminds us that cardiovascular disease is the cause of more than 50,000 deaths a year; that’s 40 per cent of all deaths in Australia. While medical research is linking some cardiovascular disease to genetic defects (The Weekend Australian 8-9Februaray 2003), yoga practitioners are experiencing the immediate relaxation and restorative effects of yoga on their heart through simple, deep, full breathing yoga exercises and relaxing yoga postures.
An open heart and a healthy heart go hand in hand. Some of the most effective ways we maintain a healthy heart and prevent the onset of heart disease include regular exercise and breathing fully and correctly. As we breathe deeply, we become more inspired — a literal meaning of “inspire” is “to breathe in”. While natural therapists have been recommending clients take up yoga and other mind/body relaxation techniques for decades, medical doctors, too, are now commonly referring patients to relaxation yoga classes, “prescribing” yoga breathing, meditation exercises and restorative postures.
Lifestyle factors greatly influence the state of your heart. Too much stress, mental anxiety, lack of sleep, short, shallow breathing, poor diet and insufficient vitamin and mineral levels — especially calcium (leached out of the body with caffeine intake) — are all common triggers for heart stress. Given this, it makes healthy sense to regularly relax and open the heart.
Many yoga relaxation postures, such as simply lying over a bolster, open the chest cavity, allowing the respiratory muscles, including the heart and lungs, to relax. This yoga exercise will automatically promote unrestricted circulation and breathing. Resting the heart slows the heart rate and assists with deep, full breathing. Narrowing and blockages of arteries often lead to angina and heart attacks. Many yoga postures assist the heart’s vessels to remain open and unblocked, releasing tightness in the arteries and cardiac muscles and preventing the onset of cardiovascular diseases.
One of the smartest Health insurance plans to invest in is simply relaxation yoga, and it’s not difficult to do. The yoga postures are designed to require little or no effort and be as comfortable as possible to ensure deep relaxation. The focus of this yoga is on slowing the breathing and developing deep, full “in” and “out” breaths through the nostrils. As we consciously inhale, we train our lungs to inflate slowly and fully, taking in maximum air. As we exhale, we allow the air to move out of the lungs slowly without strain or force, training the lungs to empty completely. This yoga practice alone greatly stretches our lung capacity and strengthens all our breathing muscles.
The following yoga postures can be practised any time, but be warned: once you are in a yoga posture you may find it difficult to release yourself from it as the yoga postures induce immediate states of deep physical and mental calm. For maximum therapeutic benefit from yoga, let go of thoughts of work and other commitments to allow yourself to drift into deep relaxation.
Healthy heart yoga postures
The following yoga postures can be done as a “mini class”, or choose just one or two yoga postures you particularly like and practise them. Remain in the yoga postures for at least five mintues to reap the full physiological benefits.
Positioning: In this yoga pose, sit with your legs outstretched and have ready a bolster placed behind you lengthways to lie back over. Keep your buttocks on the ground and the bolster touching your lower back. Once you are lying over the bolster, rest the back of your head on a small folded blanket. Tuck your chin in and close your eyes. The bolster supports and opens your chest, assisting with deep full breathing. Relax like that for about 10 minutes, focusing on your opening heart.
2. Viparita Karani
Positioning: For this yoga practise, place a bolster or three folded blankets against a wall. Position yourself so your legs are extending up the wall, with your pelvis raised and resting on the bolster or blankets (to get into position, sit on the bolster and slide in from the side). Have the upper back, shoulders, head and arms resting to the floor. Your buttocks should be touching the wall so you are ‘locked’ into the corner of the wall and bolster. Bring the legs and feet and flex the toes back toward the head. Tuck your chin in, close your eyes and focus on the breathing. Feel the blood draining down the legs, falling into the belly and moving gently towards the heart. Allow the heart to rest here for about five to ten minutes.
3. Chair Rest
Positioning: For this yoga pose, lie flat on your back with your calves resting along the seat of a chair. Relax your arms on the floor with your palms facing upwards. Tuck your chin in and close your eyes. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go. Relax in this yoga position for about five to ten minutes.
4. Viparita Karani Mudra
Viprita-inverted, Karani-practice, Mudra-creating seal or lock
Positioning: Lie on your back on two or three neatly folded blankets with your shoulders about an inch from the folded edge and with the back of your head resting on the floor. With your chin tucking in, inhale to bring your legs over your head, place the palms of your hands onto your hips for support and extend the legs out straight at an angle above the head. Your torso and extended legs create a right angle and the palms cup the hips as the weight of the legs and buttocks sink into the hands. Keep the elbows in at shoulder width and shoulders on the blanket to create space for the back of the neck. Relax here in this yoga pose for as long as comfortable, five to ten minutes is effective in resting the pumping action of the heart , as the blood runs freely down the legs and torso. Avoid this inverted yoga posture if you are menstruating or find it a strain to come into.
5. Setu Bandha
Positioning: Lie over a long bolster or folded blankets positioned lengthwise. Make sure your feet and legs are well supported by the bolster or blankets. Rest the head, shoulders, upper back and arms on the floor. The end of the bolster, where your back starts to come off the edge, is around the area of your floating rib toward the lower back. This slight inversion posture rests the heart open and relieves tension and headache. Close your eyes and be here in this yoga position for about ten minutes.
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