Cardiac rehab: How yoga therapy can help

By Jennifer Lenders

Although patients new to intensive cardiac rehab (ICR) often arrive thinking of yoga as a stretching class for flexible people, they soon find that yoga therapy is not only accessible to all but also helpful in supporting healing and lifestyle change. The results of yoga therapy in ICR are unique to each patient, as some are most interested in reducing muscle tension, whereas others seek relief from pain or stress, new experiences, or permission for daily self-care. The benefits we’ve discovered in the last 2 years can best be described by patients’ observations of themselves and the effects they’ve noticed outside of class.

After yoga practices like a body-scan meditation, deep abdominal breathing, and simple joint movements, patients make statements like the following: “I did not realize how long it would take to heal the bones from open-heart surgery. I still feel the discomfort and notice how shallow I breathe as a result.” This sharing gave the opportunity for others in the class to confirm similar experiences, and the group was visibly relieved.

Classes include slow, mindful head movements to release neck and shoulder tension. These are undoubtedly the tightest areas for most ICR patients, and we pay attention to the upper back and jaws, too. The movements help them to recognize holding patterns and restricted breathing and may help release some mental-emotional stress patterns as well. After work like this and a guided visualization, a patient observed: “I discovered through the guided visualization of the cardiovascular system that I am not afraid of my heart event, but rather see it as a guide to look at my life a little deeper, and to listen. The fear is less.”

Classes may start with faces and bodies exhibiting discomfort, pain, fatigue, polite curiosity, and protective postures. A patient who may never have been open to lifestyle changes before—or whose previous changes didn’t last—knows that it’s now or never, which adds an element of stress to the process of change. Many ICR patients have health issues beyond just heart recovery, and they may never have spent time on their own well-being. Yoga therapy provides encouragement that self-care, self-compassion, and establishing a positive relationship with their bodies are much-needed, well-deserved changes to their lives. I have heard some patients reassure themselves by saying, “Permission for self-care given.”

Clearly, lower stress levels and a healthy mindset are important for ICR patients’ health on many levels. Yoga therapy can meet these needs as patients navigate challenging health events. At a minimum, they are supported and encouraged to listen to their bodies. Through yoga therapy, individuals can discover a new way of looking at their health beyond their current circumstances.

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Jennifer Lenders, C-IAYT, is a yoga therapist at Michigan Heart and Vascular Institute and Mercy Elite Sports Performance. She also teaches stress-reduction classes for healthcare workers and yoga classes at Schoolcraft College.