Yoga Science: Heart Health

Vinyasa Yoga for your heart…

 

Have you ever walked out of yoga class / finished your home yoga practice, and felt like you were walking on a cloud?

This is often the feeling that keeps yoga students coming back for more! It does feel rather lovely…

But I don’t just want to say ‘yoga makes you feel good’. I’m interested in exactly WHAT yoga does to the body that makes us feel so amazing…

 

My Science background

Some of you may know I studied Sports and Exercise Science and then worked as a researcher at the University of Bath.

I absolutely loved the opportunity to learn more about health and exercise every day, however… writing science papers reeeeeally wasn’t my thing.

After a decade in academia, I took a long (and much needed) break from reading scientific literature. HOWEVER…. My science-brain has recently woken up again!

So I’ve been enjoying searching Google Scholar for the science available on yoga and health.

Today, I’ll be reviewing a study looking at the heart-health benefits after a single Vinyasa Yoga session.

 

Is Vinyasa Yoga special?

Why did the searchers choose this style of yoga?

Well, Vinyasa Yoga is a little bit special because it links up each yoga pose (or set of poses) with a ‘Vinyasa’. This means a flowing movement involving:

  • Reaching over head
  • Bending forwards at the hips
  • A plank pose
  • Low plank (plank with elbows bent: Chataranga Dandasana)
  • Upward dog (lying on the ground, pressing up to arch the back), and
  • Downward Dog (Hands and feet on the floor, and bum pointing to the sky!)

The first of these movements is done with an inhale, followed by the next movement coinciding with the exhale, etc.

 

A unique form of exercise

These Vinyasa movements, coordinated with breathing, makes it a form of aerobic exercise (raising the heart rate a little), but also helps to keep the nervous system in a ‘rest and digest’ state, as the breath remains relatively slow.

This makes Vinyasa Yoga DIFFERENT from exercise such as running or weight-lifting as these put the body in a more ‘fight or flight’ state. (Which is a good thing too, while exercising!)

Vinyasa Yoga is also different from other styles of static yoga (like Iyengar). The more stationary types of yoga focus on stretching and strength, but don’t include flowing movements coordinated with breath.

 

What did this study do?

Thirty healthy adults (between 20 and 70 years of age) attended a 1-hour Vinyasa Yoga class.

Both before and after the yoga class, the researchers measured the participants’:

  • Blood sugar and blood fat levels: total LDL (aka. ‘bad’), HDL (aka. ‘good’) and triglycerides (also ‘bad’).
  • Several markers of heart health: artery stiffness, Augmentation Index (AI: a measure of how blood flows through the heart), and blood pressure.
  • Participants’ mood (using a standardised questionnaire)

 

Less blood pressure stress

After just one Vinyasa Yoga session, Augmentation Index (AI) was lower.

Lower AI is a sign of reduced blood pressure stress on the heart. The heart’s arteries can be damaged by frequent surges of high blood pressure. When the blood vessel lining gets damaged that’s when plaques can start to build up, which eventually can lead to heart disease.

Sooooooo any lowering of blood pressure stress is a positive change to keep the heart’s blood vessels healthy!

 

Yogic breathing and heart health

The stiffness of the heart’s arteries did not change after the 1-hour Vinyasa Yoga session. The researchers noted that this was very interesting!

They were predicting that the artery stiffness would increase, as it does after one session of strength training.

Strength training raises arterial stiffness because it temporarily increases blood pressure. As many yoga poses involve contracting the muscles for several breaths, the researchers though yoga might also increase the blood pressure and arterial stiffness.

The researchers named this a “potential anomaly” that may be related with the intentional slow yogic breath:

“…while yoga postures combine isometric contractions with stretching, both of which should elicit sympathetic nervous system-induced elevations in blood pressure, the slowing of breath by linking breath cycle (inhale/exhale) phases with movement transitions in vinyasa yoga could counteract the causative factors which increase arterial stiffness after the session.”

“It has been shown that slow breathing acutely reduces muscle sympathetic nerve activity [fight or flight], AIx [blood pressure stress on the heart], PWV [aortic artery stiffness], and inflammation while improving baroreflex sensitivity [blood pressure regulation].”

So, perhaps there’s sense in this slow breathing thing!

 

Vinyasa Yoga and Cholesterol

After the 1-hour Vinyasa Yoga class, participants also had lower total non-HDL cholesterol. This represents all the fat floating in the blood minus the ‘good guy’,  HDL.

This is also a positive thing for artery health. It is accepted in the medical world these days that lower non-HDL blood fats can help reduce the onset of heart disease.

 

Vinyasa Yoga and Mood

Participants had significantly reduced negative feelings after the 1-hour Vinyasa Yoga class.

This is a point that is easily verifiable by us all! Have you ever finished a yoga class in a more negative state than how you started it??

The researchers hypothesised that there could be a link between the positive psychological improvements and the reduction in blood pressure stress on the heart.

 

How is this relevant for you?

Whether you’ve ever thought about your heart health, or not, this is relevant to you!

Keeping your blood pressure within a healthy range is one of the the best things to do to avoid a future heart attack (apart from stopping smoking!)

Yoga is by no means the ONLY way to do this. Any exercise is beneficial in the long run, as well as not smoking and keeping a healthy body weight.

That said, yoga is a great exercise choice!

As well as physical benefits it also has proven psychological benefits. And what I love about yoga is that it is an activity that you’ll be able to maintain throughout your WHOLE LIFE.

So, do you fancy becoming a yoga-ing 80 year old with healthy arteries??

Then start a healthy yoga-habit today! 😉

Let’s practice!

I invite you to practice one of my more physically demanding yoga classes. (I have LOTS of online yoga videos!!)

Perhaps one from the Strength theme (orange)

or the Ashtanga theme (turquoise). 

As you move through any challenging poses, REALLY focus on lengthening and slowing down your breath.

 

Let’s get sweaty!

(If you’re not yet a BendyFriend, have a look at my offerings!)

Learn more!

I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

Piña, A. A., Shadiow, J., Fadeyi, A. T., Chavez, A., & Hunter, S. D. (2021). The acute effects of vinyasa flow yoga on vascular function, lipid and glucose concentrations, and mood. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 56, 102585.

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