Yes, Yoga Is Good for Your Heart. Here’s Why

This article originally appeared on Yoga Journal

Your practice might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of cardiovascular exercise, but yoga still brings an array of benefits for heart health. Physical activity in any capacity can lower your blood pressure, ease stress, and even reduce your risk of experiencing heart disease.

What sort of exercise is good for the heart?

Cardiovascular exercise, commonly known as cardio, is a form of aerobic exercise that elevates your heart rate. Aerobic exercise literally translates to "with oxygen," explains sports cardiologist Ankit Shah, MD, with MedStar Health. "In this form of exercise, your heart’s job is to pump blood newly refreshed with oxygen to your working muscles to allow them to perform the activity. It does this by increasing the heart rate and, over time, increasing how much blood it can pump with each beat. Your breathing rate increases as you have to take in more oxygen and remove the carbon dioxide waste from the blood," says Shah.

Any activity that elevates your heart rate and keeps it elevated can be considered cardio. Walking, riding a bike, or climbing up a few flights of stairs are aerobic activities that we do on a daily basis. An hour-long vinyasa class will also get your heart rate up and your muscles will feel the strain.

See also: Is Yoga Enough to Keep You Fit?

The (many) heart-healthy benefits of exercise

"Routine moderate aerobic exercise is one of the best things you can do for your heart and body," says Shah. Consistent data has shown that 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week improves cardiovascular health by decreasing heart stiffness, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, as well as reducing inflammation and improving your sensitivity to insulin, says Shah.

But what does moderate intensity mean, and do you need to wear a fitness tracker to tell when you're exercising in that zone? Probably not. Harvard Health defines "moderate" as breathing harder and still being able to talk in full sentences, but needing more breaths to do so.

If you're practicing yoga at home, you could try vocalizing what you're doing as your body is moving. Being able to speak full sentences, while still panting a little bit, is the sweet spot of moderate intensity. This is helpful for recognizing when you’re at moderate intensity, and as a bonus, teachers can practice their cues (and see if the sequence feels too intense), and students can develop a better understanding of what feels comfortable and what might need to be modified slightly for a better experience.

Fortunately, that key target of 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a week can be broken up into several different segments to suit your lifestyle and schedule. Below, we'll explain a few ways of using your yoga practice to reach that goal--and support your heart.

3 ways to improve heart health through yoga

Take a vinyasa class

A person demonstrates High Lunge in yoga
A person demonstrates High Lunge in yoga

The practice: Vinyasa yoga is an active practice in which you flow through a sequence of poses with every movement connected to your breath. It generally begins with Sun Salutation A to warm up, then includes a string of postures that build up to a peak pose, and finally, a cool down in which you're stretching while sitting or lying on your back. Throughout the practice, breath awareness becomes important for maintaining stability and depth in the poses. While the practice isn't necessarily as repetitive or consistently demanding as running, which is one movement over and over again, it's still a prolonged form of exercise that elevates your heart rate and is practiced "with oxygen" due to the breathing demands.

How long to practice: Many studios and online platforms offer 60- to 90-minute vinyasa classes (Yoga Journal offers a variety of vinyasa practices through our Studio Sessions). As a rule of thumb, strive for at least one to two classes per week that are an hour or more in duration.

Practice Surya Namaskar A and B at home

<span class="article__caption">Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia</span>
Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

The practice: This is where you can begin to develop your own practice, stepping aside from studios to flow at your own pace with your own sequence. Surya Namaskar A and B (Sun Salutations) are a set sequence of postures that are practiced at the beginning of many classes to prepare the body and mind for tuning into itself and getting the heart and muscles ready for exertion.

Begin by warming up the body in Tabletop with a few rounds of Cat-Cow. You can also find organic movement here, or sink into Balasana (Child's Pose) to open up your hips.

When you're ready, come to standing and begin with Surya Namaksar A (Sun Salutation A).

  1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

  2. Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)

  3. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

  4. Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend)

  5. Plank Pose

  6. Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

  7. Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)

  8. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

  9. Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge)

  10. Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend)

  11. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

  12. Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)

  13. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

  14. Repeat on the other side

After 4 rounds of Surya Namaskar A, move into Surya Namaskar B.

  1. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

  2. Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

  3. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

  4. Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend)

  5. Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

  6. Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)

  7. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

  8. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose)

  9. Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

  10. Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)

  11. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

  12. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose on the other side)

  13. Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

  14. Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)

  15. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

  16. Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend)

  17. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

  18. Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

  19. Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

Continue on with a sequence of your own, or come to your mat for reclining postures to cool down.

How long to practice: One round of Surya Namaskar A can take about 1 minute to complete depending on your pace, and same with Surya Namaskar B. Practicing 4 rounds of each will stretch and strengthen both sides of the body twice and will take about 10 minutes to complete, considering 1 minute is only a rough estimate and you should go at your own pace. From this point, you can continue to do a few more rounds of Sun Salutation A and B or transition into exploring other postures. Conclude the practice with a cool down by stretching on your back. Practice this for 30 minutes, twice per week.

Pick a pose, any pose

<span class="article__caption">Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia</span>
Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia

The practice: There's much benefit to challenging yourself to explore the intricacies of a single pose. Taking time to dedicate your mental and physical energies into one posture grows your confidence, determination, skill, patience, humility, and self-compassion--both on and off the mat. In this stage, face your fears and attempt new postures, ones that you might not normally encounter in structured classes. Doing so is an exercise in self-discovery. You'll recognize how you respond to falling repeatedly, but it will make the joy of finally expressing a pose even more great. Oh, and it gets your heart pumping, too.

How long to practice: Spend 10 minutes on one posture 3 times per week. Kakasana (Crow Pose), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), and Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose) are a few examples of challenge poses that will push you mentally and physically.

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