You’ve heard the bad news: High blood pressure can lead to heart attacks, strokes, and other unhealthy cardiovascular events. Traditionally treatment has been medication, diet, exercise, and no smoking or alcohol. The good news is that recent studies and reviews have shown there’s a lot you can do to keep your blood pressure within a healthy range, including starting a yoga practice.
High blood pressure is a medical condition in which the pressure of the blood pushing against the blood vessel walls is persistently high. High blood pressure forces the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. When blood pressure is high for prolonged periods, hardening of the arteries, heart failure, and other ailments can develop. Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm HG) using two numbers, for example 120/80. The first number (the “systolic blood pressure”) represents the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats. The second number (the “diastolic blood pressure”) represents the pressure in your vessels when your heart rests between beats. Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80. Blood pressure of 140/90 and above is considered high. Raised diastolic pressure is considered more serious than raised systolic pressure as it has more serious long-term effects.
According to the National Centre for Health Statistics, one in three U.S. adults have high blood pressure, and about one in two have it under control. High blood pressure is often called the “silent killer” because one can live with it for years and not realize it, as it often doesn’t present any warning signs or symptoms. For most adults, there often aren’t any easily identifiable causes. The stresses of modern day life, poor diet, and sedentary lifestyle certainly seem to contribute to high blood pressure in many individuals. However, some individuals are more pre-disposed to high blood pressure. Suggested treatment for this disease may involve drugs and almost always involves lifestyle changes such as physical activity, dietary modifications, quitting smoking, limiting alcohol and caffeine intake, as well as stress reduction.
Many studies show that yoga can be a very effective and non-invasive way of reducing high blood pressure. It is particularly effective in reducing the diastolic number – which is the most important. It is suggested that people with high blood pressure should only practice certain asanas (postures), whilst acknowledging that there are other asanas that are not suitable for them. The yogic practices of meditation and pranayama (breathing exercises) are also particularly beneficial for people who suffer from high blood pressure.
It has been known for quite some time that engaging in regular exercise and healthy eating habits helps to lower blood pressure. Dr. Dean Ornish has introduced millions of people worldwide to the benefits of yoga, meditation and diet as therapy for high blood pressure and more specifically chronic heart disease. For the past 30 years, Dr. Ornish has conducted numerous studies demonstrating that holistic lifestyle changes can not only affect the precursors of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol naturally, but can even turn around coronary conditions without prescription medications or surgery.
Dr. Ornish was initiated into meditation, yoga and vegetarian diet by Swami Satchidananda (the founder of Integral Yoga) and studied with him for 30 years until his death in 2002. Integral Yoga was a key component of the heart disease program designed by Dr. Ornish. He recognized that stress was a major factor in high blood pressure. The stress management techniques that he employed ultimately derive from yoga and meditation practices.
People with high blood pressure are admonished to be cautious in approaching exercise. This is generally because vigorous exercise puts stress on the cardiovascular system, including raising heart-rate and blood pressure. Before engaging in any sort of exercise program, including yoga of any type or variety, people with any sort of cardiovascular condition including high blood pressure should consult their physician. However, yoga asanas are not considered to be cardiovascular exercises as such. Cardiovascular exercises push the body, elevating the heart rate is elevated and the VO2 max rises. Rather than placing the focus on cardiovascular fitness yoga is more about achieving a balance between body and mind, energizing your body in the process. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that despite there not being gains in VO2 max there were gains in strength, endurance and flexibility when engaging in regular practice of Hatha yoga. According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali an “asana is a steady comfortable posture”. During most exercise practices the heart is put under stress as the requirement for blood and oxygen is increased. In asanas however, the requirement for blood and oxygen decreases as there are not strains and every muscle is relaxed. When done with conscious breathing asanas balance and stabilize autonomic nervous system resulting in the regulation of blood pressure.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into two subsystems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the center that controls actions that need immediate responses, such as physical or emotional stress and the parasympathetic nervous system is the center that controls actions that do not need immediate reaction, such as digestion and eliminating waste.
The asanas that regulate the blood pressure belong to the forward bends, supine, sitting, and some of the inversions group. However forward bends are the fundamental asanas to be practiced by persons suffering from high blood pressure, as the sense organs: eyes, nose, throat and tongue are relaxed thereby resting the sympathetic nervous and creating a positive effect on the parasympathetic system. It the appendix of his book Light on Yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar recommends the following asanas for individuals suffering form high blood pressure: Plow Pose, Head to Knee Pose, Heroes Pose, Accomplished Pose, Lotus Position, Corpse Pose and the Pachimotonasana Series: Half Lotus Intense Stretch Pose, Three Limbs Facing Intense West Stretch and Seated Forward Fold.
Research also indicates that shoulder stand is particularly effective as the pose calms the body, “lowering blood pressure by clamping down on the carotids effectively making the local pressure very high. This sends a message to the parasympathetic system, which assumes that the brain tissues are suffering from too much blood, and orders the heart and circulatory system to compensate with pressure cuts.”[sic] (The Science of Yoga: the risks and the rewards – W.J Broad).
In addition to practicing asanas, Yogic breathing has been shown to have a positive effect on blood pressure. Even for those who’ve never been exposed to yoga before, deep breathing can help to reduce the effects of constant daily stress, including rise in blood pressure. Pranayama is a Sanskrit word and is usually translated as the Science of Breath. Literally prana means vital energy and ayama means control. Pranayama has the ability to restore, revitalize and reenergize the entire body. Conscious breathing lowers blood pressure (as well as the amount of the stress hormone cortisol) that is present in the body. Extended pranayama can lead to a sustained lower heart rate. A recent study showed beneficial effects even from short-term practice of regular pranayama and meditation techniques, with significant reduction in resting pulse rate, systolic, diastolic and mean arterial blood pressure. Pranayama has been shown to influence the cardiovascular system with decrease in heart rate, and blood pressure. Some pranayama techniques employed in the aforementioned studies, which help with high blood pressure are:
Deergha Swasam (or three-part breath): This is a deep breathing technique that floods the system with up to seven times more oxygen than normal breathing.
Uijayi Pranayama (or Victorious Breath): This is a balanced and calming breathing technique which builds heat in the body and increases oxygenation, it also this also affects the cartiod sinus which helps to normalize high blood pressure, and
Naddi Shoddi (or alternate nostril breathing): This is very calming to the nervous system as a whole.
Meditation is another beneficial yogic practice for people with high blood pressure. The body’s physical reaction to stress is not always the same for everyone, but with negative stress there is no real relaxation between one stress situation and the next. Meditation is the study of concentration. The mind and body are very intimately connected; when the mind is completely at ease, the whole body gains complete rest. Practicing meditation techniques in times of physical or mental stress helps to manage the “fight or flight” response to negative stress and lower blood pressure.
There is no single meditation technique that is best for everyone. The right technique is the one which focuses the mind and to elicit the relaxation response. Some examples of meditation techniques are:
Deep Breathing Meditation: This meditation can be practiced almost anywhere and is the cornerstone for many other relaxation practices.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: A technique for reducing anxiety by alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles. As the body relaxes so too does the mind.
Mindful or Transcendental meditation: By focusing attention on a single repetitive action such as a word, mantra, breathing, picture or candle the mind becomes calm and focused, bringing the nervous system into balance.
Yoga Nidra: A guided meditation practice, which puts the body and mind into a deep state of relaxation.
Researchers have documented immediate benefits in terms of lowered blood pressure, dercreased heart and respiratory rate, increased blood flow, and other measurable signs of the relaxation response. According to a study from the University of Kentucky regular practice of Trancendental Meditation may have the potential to reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure by approximately 4.7 and 3.2 mm Hg, respectively. In addition to lowering blood pressure meditation also has a positive effect on cardiovascular health, concentration, brain functioning, sleep patterns, depression, anxiety, and stress.
Diet can also play a huge part in high blood pressure. The traditional yogic diet is vegetarian. It is based on whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and free of animal products except for milk, yogurt and cheeses. The human digestive system functions best on a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians are also less likely to suffer from high blood pressure. Dr. Dean Ornish’s program, mentioned above, recommends consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and severely restricts the consumption of animal products, dietary fat, and refined carbohydrates. The Mayo Clinic suggests “Eating a diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products and skimps on saturated fat and cholesterol can lower your blood pressure by up to 14 mm Hg. This eating plan is known as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.” The yogic diet meets all these criteria and adds a few more healthy guidelines such as avoiding alcohol and caffeine.
According to many studies, high blood pressure is influenced by the stress and strain of the modern lifestyle. There is a wealth of clinically significant research that suggests adopting yogic practices and principles can help to improve health and mental well-being, increasing resiliency to stress, and, by extension, to high blood pressure. It may seem like stating the obvious, but if one reduces stresses on the mind and the body by eating healthy diet focused on pure, wholesome and nutritious foods, practicing yoga asanas, pranayama and meditation the blood pressure can be controlled within normal limits.
Important note: If you want to try any of the previous suggestions, do not stop any prescribed medications without consulting with your doctor first. Most of these studies have shown that alternative therapies have the ability to help people with pre or mild hypertension avoid medication, or help people who can’t tolerate medications, but are not effective enough for people with severe cases to get off medication altogether. People with hard-to-control blood pressure, however, can use these therapies in conjunction with medication to help bring their numbers down even more.