Healing Hearts with Yoga

Coronary Artery Disease, CAD as referred to in the medical community, is running rampant in our country and is the leading cause of death. Yearly, about 500,000 people die, 600,000 have heart attacks, and 800,000 folks suffer from angina (chest pain caused by blockage or constriction of the coronary arteries.) The incidence of heart disease is increasing and the age at which it occurs is decreasing. The statistics are pretty frightening. Medical intervention techniques are expensive, invasive, and not very effective in the long term. Treating the symptoms is only a stop-gap measure; treating the cause is the real cure.

CAD can be prevented and can be reversed ! We’re talking about a paradigm shift in consciousness here, not just a new medical technique. If we truly understand the cause, we can embrace the cure. And what’s the cause? We’ve heard this all before, high cholesterol, smoking, caffeine, lack of exercise, “Type A” or “workaholic” personality, stress and anxiety. These issues basically represent a disconnection from our innate knowledge of ourselves. If we honor and nurture ourselves, we will eat a healthy diet, exercise, relax, meditate, do yoga, and have deep, meaningful relationships. These self- honoring priorities are the answer to reversing CAD.

In June, a select group of 43 yoga teachers collectively representing over 400 years of yoga experience, gathered with Nischala Devi, one of the developers, and the Director of Stress Management for the hospital-based Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease. In an intense 8 day course, Nischala instructed us in the first Cardiac Teacher Training for yoga teachers. Yoga to reverse Cardiac Disease? Yes!…And it works!

We know that yoga relaxes us and reduces stress. We know that a vegetarian diet is healthier. We know we’re more relaxed and effective if we take time to meditate. We know we need a bit of aerobic exercise daily, and that sharing our lives with friends and family in deep and meaningful ways is of great value for emotional and psychological wellbeing. What we’re discovering, scientifically, is that all of these positive activities combined with yoga heals our hearts.

The program for reversing and preventing Coronary Artery Disease is really very simple, however it takes a steadfast dedication and is actually a lifestyle change for most people. Given the choice of having “open heart bypass” surgery, which is a temporary intervention, or doing yoga and eating vegetables, which is prevention and regression of the disease, which would you choose?

Based on the elements of a healthy lifestyle, you can create more awareness to enable you to make choices that will keep your heart, and the rest of your body, mind and spirit healthy as well. This scientifically proven program consists of four elements: a vegetarian low fat diet, yoga, exercise, and a support group.

Begin with a vegetarian or vegetable based diet Fat is the culprit. Cholesterol, found in animal fats, sticks to the walls of coronary arteries creating plaque. This constricts or shuts down the flow of blood to the heart which starves the heart for oxygen causing “angina” (chest pain,) shortness of breath, and heart damage. The arteries also constrict causing high blood pressure. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all, but heart attack and death are the result. Medically, an angiogram can determine the location of the blockage of the artery. And medically, angioplasty can break up the blockage. Both procedures are very invasive and don’t eliminate the cause of the blockage. From a yogic perspective, a change of diet will address the cause. For reversal of cholesterol blockages eat a vegetarian diet with only 10% fat. For prevention, allow only 20% fat in your diet.

Yoga! The yoga portion of the program is the foundation for success Yoga for cardiac health is a stress management technique, not to be confused with a fitness training. It allows the body to reabsorb the hardened cholesterol, and is effective in healing at a very basic level. One hour and 15 minutes of this yoga program has been shown to be effective. Cardiac yoga has five aspects, all of which are equally important: “asana” or poses, deep relaxation, visualization, breathing, and meditation.

Asana. The “asana” part of the program consists of the poses through which the body stretches, squeezing out the physical tension. The poses free our muscles from tightness, massage our internal organs and sensitize us to become more and more conscious of our bodies. Be gentle with yourself. Tune into your body and stretch only to the level that is comfortable for you. Here is a sampling of some simple poses you can practice:

Neck Stretches. Sitting comfortably in a chair, spine straight, drop your ear toward your right shoulder. Keep your chin slightly tucked toward your throat and your face forward. Feel the stretch on the left side of your neck. As you exhale, gently drop your left shoulder. Now bring your head to the left side and stretch the right side of your neck. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds.

Thigh toward Chest. Sitting in a chair, spine straight, grasp your right leg behind your knee and draw it toward your chest. Be sure to keep your back flat and exhale as you bring your thigh a bit closer. Hold for a few seconds and release. Then do the pose with the left leg.

Cobra Pose. Lie on your stomach with your hands directly under your shoulders, palms flat on the floor, fingers pointing forward. Keep your elbows close to your ribcage as you gently raise your head and chest off the floor. Breathe normally, hold for a few seconds and release.

Forward Bend. Sitting on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you, raise your arms overhead and lift your chest, flattening your back. As you exhale, reach forward stretching toward your toes. Keep your back flat and allow your hands to rest on your legs at a comfortable position. Relax and breathe into the pose. As you come up inhale and raise your arms overhead, then slowly lower them as you exhale.

Deep Relaxation. Deep calming relaxation can release the tensions and stress of everyday life. Its a conscious withdrawal of energy from the physical body and into a place of calm and connection within our deepest self. Most cardiac patients are hard-driving, full power dynamos who have forgotten how to relax, and they’re not alone. Our culture encourages pushing in the fast lane and certainly doesn’t encourage relaxation. For a healthy heart, and to be even more effective in our lives, we must learn to relax. To be at peace in the world we must learn to periodically withdraw from it.

There are a multitude of benefits of Deep Relaxation. It lowers blood pressure and heart rate, lowers cholesterol, reduces angina, reduces anxiety and the need for medication, releases anxiety and improves sleep. It produces the “Relaxation Response” in the parasympathetic nervous system which recharges the nervous system, relaxes the heart and the digestive system.

Here’s how to relax:

Lie down or sit in a comfortable position making sure that all parts of your body are supported.

Close your eyes and scan your body with your mind. Do you feel a tightness or tension anywhere? Is one shoulder tighter than the other? Is your neck tense? Do you feel pain anywhere?

Adjust your body to be even more comfortable.

Bring your attention to your right leg. Stretch it out from your hip, hugging the muscles toward the bones. Raise your leg a little off the floor, and relax it back down again. Roll it from side to side and relax. Then do the other leg.

Bring your attention to your right arm, stretch it out to the side, hugging the muscles to the bones and stretching your hand as wide as possible, make a fist, and release it to your side. Then follow the same process with your left arm.

Squeeze your buttocks, feel your body lift, and then relax down.

Press your belly out as you inhale deeply, and release with a relaxing exhalation. Allow your belly to be soft.

Inhale deeply and allow your ribcage to expand as wide as possible, expanding your lungs. Exhale and let go. Relax.

Draw your shoulders up around your ears. Squeeze them tightly. Roll them back and down, releasing any tension in your neck and shoulders. Roll your head gently from side to side, letting it come to rest at center.

Squeeze your face, pucker your lips, close your jaw, squeeze your eyelids tightly shut and draw your whole face toward your nose. Then release and relax.

Focus your breath. Taking long deep breaths, and as you exhale send the breath through your mind to each of the parts of your body that you just relaxed. Send your breath as a healing balm, searching out the more subtle tensions and releasing them with your exhalation.

Inhale deeply and fill your entire body with relaxation. Bring your attention to your heart and inhale, filling it with peace, centeredness and calm. Realize that this feeling of stillness is your essential self, the place of peace within you from which you may live.

Visualization and imagery. Our minds are incredibly powerful, and our bodies hear and respond to everything we think. Worry and anxiety are the result of imagery. Most of the time we worry about things that never happen, causing physical stress, increased blood pressure and heart rate, lowered immunity, and mental anguish. If our bodies respond to worry, they’ll also respond to positive images and the physical result is healing. Concentrate your attention on an area of your body that needs healing or relaxation. Imagine or visualize it the way it will look to you, seeing it healthy. For example, visualize your heart. Pink, healthy tissue, blood flowing freely through clear, strong arteries, rich red blood flowing out of your heart, through your arteries to feed every cell in your body. Create as graphic an image as you can. Remember, your image is to create healing and your body will believe what you tell it.

Breathing. We can live without food, water, and shelter, for a time, but how long can we live without breathing? Our first inhalation meant life, and our last exhalation will mean death. The way we breathe affects our thoughts, our minds and our emotions. Chronic stress and tension cause shallow breathing, starving our bodies for oxygen and constantly pushing our nervous systems to the edge of a panic response. Control of our breath gives us control of our responses. We’ve all heard “If you’re angry, take a deep breath.” That breath gives pause. It slows us down to give us time to think a different thought, to choose again. Putting space between our thoughts creates relaxation and can be controlled by putting space between our breaths. Begin by noticing your breathing pattern. Are your breaths shallow or deep? Are you breathing only with the tops of your lungs or are you bringing your breath all the way down to your belly? Deep full breathing oxygenates the body, relaxing it, cleansing it and slowing down our emotional reactions.

You can practice controlling your breath with “alternate nostril breathing.” Close your right nostril and deeply through your left nostril. Then close off your left nostril and exhale completely through your right nostril. Take full deep breaths and exhale completely. Alternate as often as you feel comfortable, building up to about 3 minutes. Close your eyes and notice how you feel.

Meditation. When life becomes hectic and stressful its important to have a stress management tool to help us to stay calm. Meditation is a path to creating and maintaining that place of peace and stillness within. When we’re calm and our minds are clear, we’re able to respond to life’s inevitable challenges from a realistic and positive perspective; we have the space in our minds to choose to act appropriately. In a medical study at Duke University, it was shown that people who did stress management after their first heart attack were less likely to have a second.

There are probably thousands and thousands of meditation techniques. The point is to calm the mind and find a technique that you enjoy doing. When you begin to try to calm the mind, it will rebel. Thoughts will be constantly pushing their way in. Be patient, start with short sessions, even just a few minutes at a time and build up to 30 minutes gradually.

To meditate, just begin:

Set up a consistent time and place to meditate. Create the atmosphere, light a candle, use your favorite cushion, light incense; whatever “gets you in the mood.”

Sit up in a comfortable position.

Choose a meditation technique that works for you. Try a few, choose one and stick with it. Meditating on a candle, on your breath, on a word. Writing, walking, meditating on a tone, on the point between your eyebrows. There are many books and tapes on meditation techniques.

As your mind tries to distract you keep bringing it back to your point of focus. If necessary, write down the important thoughts that are coming between you and your calm mind.

Physical aerobic exercise is important. It can be gentle and should very definitely be enjoyable so you’ll do it; about a half an hour a day is effective. Exercise at a comfortable rate so that you can carry on a conversation while you’re doing it. You’ll be exercising your entire body as you walk and talk and share with a friend. Integrate your exercise into your day, climb a few flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator, get a dog to walk with or walk to work with a friend. Sunset is a great time to stroll briskly and relax from the day. The more you walk, the faster you’ll enjoy the benefits of better cardiovascular circulation, overall fitness, stronger respiration, and of course, a healthier heart.

Participate in a support group. Emotional, psychological and spiritual support is valuable for all of us, and especially critical for those who are challenged with a major lifestyle change. The value of interpersonal support systems has been demonstrated in 12 Step Programs, and that type of support is just as valuable for those changing their lifestyle for a healthier heart. Sharing with others opens our hearts, supporting each other heals them.

The medical paradigm is changing. Many medical facilities and insurance companies are embracing stress reduction approaches to healing hearts. We are empowering ourselves, taking responsibility for our health and realizing the importance of loving ourselves and caring about each other. When we heal our hearts in this way, we inevitably heal the world around us. We bring calm, peace and healing wherever we go.