Stress is now considered to be a major contributor to poor health and the development of many diseases, including heart disease. Both anxiety and type A behavior have been associated with coronary disease.
Yoga and meditation often are recommended as ways to relieve stress and even promote good health and longevity.
Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years and strives to connect the mind, the body and the spirit through breathing, meditation and exercise. Yoga focuses on teaching people a new lifestyle, a way of thinking, a way of moving, a way of "being" in the world.
In this process, it has been found to bring a variety of healing effects, some of which have been documented clinically.
The list of benefits achieved by doing yoga is almost endless. Posture, sleep habits, memory and balance improve; energy levels increase; weight normalizes; pain and depression decrease; and the immune system gets stronger.
When discussing heart disease specifically, the documented benefits include: lowered blood pressure; increased cardiovascular efficiency; improved cholesterol levels; and decreased glucose, respiratory rate and pulse rate.
In a study conducted in 2004 by Yale University, findings showed that people who practice yoga and meditation at least three times a week may reduce their blood pressure, pulse and, most importantly, their risk of heart disease. This study showed that heart health improved in both healthy individuals as well as in those diagnosed with heart disease.
Victoria Strohmeyer, a Steamboat Springs resident and certified Yoga of the Heart instructor, describes the benefits of this program, which adapts yoga for patients with heart disease.
"The primary goals of Yoga of the Heart, are teaching safe, modified yoga positions, deep relaxation, imagery and meditation," Strohmeyer said.
The relaxation and exercise components of yoga play a major role in lowering blood pressure and improving blood vessel function. Blood vessel function is the way blood vessels contract and expand to aid blood flow. This is an important indicator of atherosclerosis (heart disease) because as the disease and plaque buildup progress, the blood vessels become less able to constrict and expand.
"Yoga of the Heart, also known as Cardiac Yoga, is a program not only for people living with heart disease, but it is also useful for people with family histories of heart disease or other risk factors," Strohmeyer explained.
Yoga can be a cornerstone of a powerful healing program for individuals who understand their cardiac risks and make lifestyle changes, such as eating a more heart-healthy diet.
Lisa A. Bankard directs the community education and wellness programs at Yampa Valley Medical Center.