Yoga therapy and cardiac care: A love story

IAYT-certified yoga therapist Sonja Rzepski specializes in yoga for cardiac care. Partnering with cardiologists at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, she designed a therapeutic cardiac care yoga program for women. The team then did a research study to evaluate the yoga program, hypothesizing that regular chair yoga and meditation can be complementary techniques to decrease anxiety, stress, and depression in women with or at risk for cardiovascular disease. The study showed a reduction in anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as weight loss of three to nine pounds over 24 weeks.

According to the U.S. CDC heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Although surgical and pharmaceutical treatments continue to save and prolong lives, doctors and researchers have learned much more about how patients’ choices and self-care, including yoga therapy, can be effective in prevention of and rehabilitation after cardiovascular problems.

Mother-daughter journey

Rzepski started her yoga journey by studying ashtanga yoga in India. Later, her own mother’s heart attack aligned her with yoga’s therapeutic value—particularly for women and particularly for cardiovascular disease. Since then, Rzepski has pioneered the yoga therapy program at Lenox Hill, partnered with Women Heart to deliver therapeutic yoga to their membership, and teaches Cardiac Care Yoga to aspiring yoga teachers and therapists through Prema Yoga Institute in New York City.

Having lost her grandfather to heart disease and working in the wellness industry, Rzepski was aware of the weight of family history in connection to health. When her mother moved nearby for work, Rzepski noticed that her mom’s health and energy didn’t seem quite right. Her mother shared that a doctor had recently told her—incorrectly— that premenopausal women could not have a heart attack. There were other medical missteps until she actually had a heart attack, luckily when she was already at the hospital. She survived.

The value of yoga therapy

Her mother’s experience inspired Rzepski to learn more about women and heart disease and to use her expertise to help. She noted that many of the patients she saw at Lenox Hill were type-A personalities—high-functioning, high-energy, and high-stress people. “One thing that I learned as a yoga therapist working with this population was how important it was to create that safe, sacred space wherever we were,” shares Rzepski in an interview with Prema Yoga Institute “to create that impetus to relax and alter their energy to match the environment.”

Rzepski reflects, 

[The] value of yoga therapy is that it encourages the client or patient to look at the whole picture of their health, and the more mindful a person becomes, the more they start to care about what they’re eating and realize that moving feels good and your life can be strong and healthy. Empowering [their physical] agency … and making choices to practice more loving kindness … also highly affects the heart. And this is what I’m very excited about regarding yoga therapy for cardiac care: that we get to bring together all these categories for a healthy life.

Two heart-ful practices

Check out a meditation practice for anxiety reduction offered by Sonja Rzepski, C-IAYT, and a loving-kindness meditation from Laura Malloy, LICSW, C-IAYT. And find your own yoga therapist here.