In a yoga class, you are likely to hear the teacher talk about “opening the heart center.” While all yoga poses benefit the health of the heart, yoga backbends dramatically stretch and open the chest and heart center. Yoga philosophy and practitioners of mind-body medicine recognize that the area in the chest where the heart is located, generally referred to as the “heart center” is the place where body, mind and spirit converge.
Heart disease is highly individual. Someone with relatively little obstruction in the coronary arteries can be incapacitated by chest pains, while another person with more severely obstructed arteries may not even be aware of a problem. Some people have run marathons with 85 percent of their coronary arteries blocked; others, with no outward sign of arteriosclerosis, have dropped dead of heart attacks. Physical causes alone explain only a portion of heart disease.
William Harvey, the father of modern heart physiology, understood over 300 years ago that the mind and emotions affect the health of the heart. As he put it, “Every affection of the mind that is attendant with either pain or pleasure, hope or fear, is the cause of an agitation whose influence extends to the heart.”
It is now widely recognized that there are emotional and spiritual factors involved in creating and maintaining heart health. Unresolved emotional and spiritual issues, such as a broken heart, depression, anger or lack of fulfillment, can physically affect the health of the heart.
As we age, stress accumulates in the body. Herbert Benson, M.D., first coined the phrase relaxation response in the 1970s to describe the profound physical and mental responses that occur when we consciously relax. Benson was among the first scientists to document yoga’s ability to significantly reduce stress, improve health and benefit the heart.
Our Heart Beat Responds to Our Breathing Pattern
Taking time to deeply relax and reduce stress is not a luxury but a health-promoting and potentially life-extending technique. The breath is the bridge between the body and mind. Our heart beat responds to our breathing pattern. It gently accelerates when we inhale and slows when we exhale.
The emphasis in yoga on inhaling slowly, gently, without strain and exhaling completely is relaxing for the heart muscle. Begin now to become aware of your breath and take time to practice slow, gentle, calm, even breathing. It’s the first step to feeling more relaxed.
Posture Also Affects the Health of Your Heart
Our everyday posture-the way we sit, stand and walk-affects our respiration, circulation and the health of the heart. Chronic slouching decreases circulation to all the vital organs.
One of yoga’s most immediate effects is improvement in our posture. The body sighs with relief as the chest opens and the breath flows freely. Standing poses, backbends and inverted poses open the chest and expand the breathing process. Upward and Downward Dog, both from the floor and with the aid of wall ropes, stretch the muscles of the front of the body, expand the chest, increase breathing capacity, and strengthen the back, chest and shoulder muscles.
The backbender is a whale-shaped yoga prop that stretches the shoulders and the spine, opens the heart/chest area and counteracts the rounding of the upper back. Lying back over a backbender or other prop such as a chair, yoga block or bolster for several minutes, has a powerful physiological effect on the nervous system, glands and organs.
According to yoga experts, passive, supported backbends gently stretch the heart muscle and the cardiac vessels that supply the heart. This increases blood flow to the heart and may help prevent arterial blockages. Backbends also help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, and force the heart to contract-lengthening cardiac muscle and enhancing blood flow. The most important task of the cardiovascular system is to supply blood to the brain. Inverted poses also help strengthen the heart, increase blood flow to the brain and may prevent the death of brain cells.
Passive backbends are useful for everyone, but are especially recommended after healing from heart surgery. They should be practiced with the guidance of a qualified instructor.
Yoga and Hypertension
Nearly 20 percent of adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure (hypertension). Hypertension is caused by multiple factors, including improper diet, stress, lack of exercise and excess body fat. It increases the risk of not only hardening of the arteries and heart attacks, but also mini strokes in the brain, which may result in dementia.
A relaxing, restorative yoga practice, including passive, supported backbends, is recommended for relieving heart palpitations, breathlessness, regulating blood pressure and calming the nervous system.
Give Your Heart a Break
The human body is sensitive to the fluctuations of gravity because it consists of about two-thirds water. Sometimes it is helpful to think of your body as a balloon filled with water. To get the water to move around you could shake up the balloon by running, jogging, or dancing. But with yoga’s Inverted Postures you could turn the balloon upside down. Inverted Poses directly benefit the heart by increasing the volume of blood coursing through it.
Inverting gives the heart a break. The heart works incessantly to ensure that freshly oxygenated blood makes its way up to the brain and the sensory organs. When inverting, the pressure is reversed. It is believed that there are internal mechanisms that sense the increase in blood and slow the flow, thus reducing both blood pressure and heart rate.
Caution: Learn backbends and inverted poses under the guidance of an experienced teacher. If you have back or neck problems your teacher can show you how to place props to safely support your head, neck and back.