Clinical research supports what any yoga practitioner might intuitively believe about yoga: yoga is good for your cardiac health.
Research also supports the use of yoga as a treatment for people with heart disease.
My own experience with yoga created curiosity and fascination about how yoga supports physical and mental health. I have been jogging since my teens; in my mid-forties, I hurt my Achilles and found myself in a hot yoga class. After nine months of hot yoga, I went for a five-mile jog and was astounded: my aerobic conditioning was actually better than it had ever been.
Yoga and cardiac health for healthy adults
In 2009, Alyson Ross and Sue Thomas of the University of Maryland did a study comparing the health benefits of yoga to other exercises. This comparison study used data from 81 previous clinical studies about the effects of yoga and other exercise on health measures. Yoga was “as good or better” in the improvement of cardiac-related measurements, including heart rate, heart rate variability, stress (measured by cortisol levels), blood pressure, and total cholesterol.
In fact, the only category where the other exercise produced a better cardiac health outcome was maximum oxygen consumption (VO2 max). This is a measurement serious athletes use to gauge conditioning. Extreme aerobic conditioning - such as sprint interval training – will improve a person’s VO2 max more than yoga. In effect, you will not get in prime shape for playing professional basketball with yoga alone. However, that doesn’t stop some of the best athletes from doing yoga. LeBron James, arguably the top basketball player in the league, has credited yoga with improving his endurance and stamina on the court.
Back in the 1970s, cardiac researchers at Duke University (and many researchers since) were surprised to find significant “quality of life” improvements from yoga. These improvements were found in studies that were measuring cardiac conditioning.
Different yoga styles have been found to yield different levels of cardiac conditioning. A gentle Hatha practice will offer less cardiac conditioning than a Hot Vinyasa. In general, a vigorous asana practice like Hot Vinyasa is comparable to jogging, spinning, and Pilates. The following table explores the calories burned during 45 minutes of yoga and other exercises.
One note about the table: the four yoga exercise styles highlighted in blue are the more active styles of yoga exercise. A Bikram yoga class always teaches the same series of positions; Ashtanga, Power and Vinyasa yoga classes, however, can vary greatly depending on the studio and instructor. So we look at the average numbers of calories burned for the best comparison.
A yoga practitioner seeking to maximize the cardiac benefits of a yoga asana practice should try Ashtanga, Bikram, Power or Vinyasa Yoga. These practices have sequences which increase your heart rate and you will feel the cardio impact when your heart races in between poses. Before trying a cardio intense yoga practice, please consider your own health, how your body may react and consult your doctor if appropriate.
Cardiac yoga therapy goes mainstream
In September 2014, I attended the Symposium on Yoga Research conducted by the International Association of Yoga Therapists. I was impressed with the sophistication of yoga therapy now being applied by dedicated physicians treating common Western ailments. There appears to be a bright future for the application of yoga therapy in combination with traditional medical practice.
One of the presenters was Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, MD, FACC, FHRS, Professor of Medicine at the University of Kansas and an internationally renowned cardiac electrophysiologist. He was the lead investigator in a 2010 study which looked at the use of yoga therapy as a supplement to standard medical therapy in the treatment of intermittent atrial fibrillation (AF). Fifty patients participated in biweekly, Iyengar based yoga therapy sessions. All training sessions were conducted in groups of 15 to 20 people by a certified professional yoga instructor and lasted for 60 minutes. During each yoga session, participants performed 10 minutes of pranayamas, 10 minutes of warm-up exercises, 30 minutes of asanas and 10 minutes of relaxation exercises.
Results showed that yoga therapy significantly reduced the incidence of atrial fibrillation (AF) and AF burden, and improved anxiety, depression, resting heart rate and blood pressure, and quality of life in patients with intermittent AF.
These findings underscore the therapeutic value of a low-cost noninvasive therapy such as yoga to effectively complement the conventional treatment strategies in improving AF patient care. Given the high prevalence of AF and costs of conventional therapy, the public health relevance of these findings is very pertinent. It is interesting to note that, while the benefits were evident, more research is needed to understand the medical explanations for why yoga therapy works. The outline of this study can be found here.
Yoga and cardiac rehabilitation
You can find three studies from the growing body of clinical evidence supporting yoga for cardiac rehab here (pdf). Although the numbers of studies are increasing, the quality of research varies widely and a certain amount of caution should be used – it is always advisable to look at the source, the number of participants, and the analysis presented. The bottom line is that yoga clinical research is still a new field; and fortunately for all of us, the amount of research is increasing exponentially.
The future of yoga and cardiac health
Yoga improves cardiac health, can be used as therapy for treatment in cardiac diseases and can slow the onset of cardiac diseases. In the next five years, we can expect to see yoga further integrated as a complement to conventional medicine and yoga will be a key part of prevention and wellness programs. The volume of clinical studies has increased rapidly and the results are promising. Almost 20 million Americans now say they practise yoga, an increase of 5 million since 2008. As yoga becomes mainstream, it would follow that the health maintenance and healing components of yoga gain notoriety and acceptance.
About the author
Mark Dellecave created and manages www.yoganodogma.com, a website dedicated to being a reliable source for yoga science news and pragmatic ideas about learning yoga and getting the best out of your yoga practice. Mark lives in New York and has been practising yoga for ten years. Mark welcomes questions and can be contacted at email@example.com.