How stress damages the heart
Psychological stress has been shown to increase activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis. This increased activation releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, which lead to faster heart rate, increased cardiac output, and narrower arteries. These changes, in turn, create increased blood pressure. Activation of these systems also accelerates the progress of atherosclerosis and can lead to acute plaque rupture, which results in ischemia of the heart (angina) and coronary heart disease and stroke.
Both yoga and meditation have been proven to promote a healthy heart by lessening physical and emotional stress. When you come to your mat and close your eyes (to practice yoga, meditate, or to simply slow your thoughts and deepen your breathing), several hormonal and physiological things happen almost instantly:
As you breathe deeper, more oxygenated blood courses throughout your circulatory system, which helps lower stress hormones which can compromise the immune system. This oxygen-rich blood also conditions and strengthens the lungs and respiratory tract.
Yoga can help lower blood pressure, increase lung capacity, improve respiratory function and heart rate, and boost circulation and muscle tone. It can also improve your overall well-being while offering strength-building benefits.
The lymphatic system is strengthened and toxins are swept away during physical practice. You may notice that you get far fewer illnesses when you have a regular yoga practice. Sometimes, students come to class with a sniffly nose, and several postures (and breathing drills) can clean out their cardiorespiratory system enough so that they walk out of class much healthier once the toxins are eliminated.
The practice of meditation has been proven to reduce activation of the sympathetic nervous system — which, in turn, dilates the blood vessels and reduces stress hormones, such as adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.
Research validates the benefits of meditation and yoga
A study at Harvard Medical School found that meditation lowered blood pressure by making the body less responsive to stress hormones, in a similar way to blood pressure-lowering medication. Meanwhile a British Medical Journal report found that patients trained how to relax had significantly lower blood pressure.
Published research also confirms that the meditation can:
- Reduce high blood pressure
- Reduce atherosclerosis
- Reduce constriction of blood vessels
- Reduce thickening of coronary arteries
- Reduce use of antihypertensive medication
- Reduce mortality rates
The National Institutes of Health has granted over $20 million to study the effects of the Transcendental Meditation program on the prevention and treatment of heart disease, hypertension, and stroke. In addition, hundreds of other studies have been conducted on the beneficial effects of the TM program for mind, health, behavior, and society at over 210 independent universities and research institutions in 33 countries, including Harvard, Yale, and UCLA Medical School.
If you have heart disease, diabetes or are obese, check with your doctor before starting any yoga program. Yoga instructors and Therapeutic Practitioners can help you find the right yoga and meditation practice that can calm nerves, ease anxiety and lower blood pressure.
American Heart Association
Harvard Medical School
National Institutes of Health
Kristy Manuel is a YogaFit Senior Master Trainer and Director of the YogaFit Therapy Program. She is an experienced yoga teacher, certified fitness trainer and wellness specialist with over 25 years experience in the fitness industry.