Research puts yoga at the heart of health

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide—AND the leading cause of morbidity (illness) and disability, according to the World Health Organization. Although many remarkable surgeries and pharmaceuticals can save and extend the lives of people with cardiovascular disease, these approaches have a number of issues, including access and cost. Receiving these interventions in time for them to be effective is also a problem, as many risk factors, especially in women, go unnoticed.

A recent meta-analysis, a robust type of study that combines the results from a number of randomized controlled trials, showed that yoga is effective at controlling cardiovascular disease risk factors and may play a role in prevention. The analysis looked at research done between 1966 and June 2022, which yielded 64 studies to analyze. 

Yoga and chronic stress

The meta-analysis pointed out that the reasons yoga is effective at controlling and even preventing cardiovascular disease are not known. The prevailing thought is that yoga decreases and teaches people to better manage chronic stress. Chronic stress causes a cascade of negative physiological changes and has been identified as a probable precursor to many diseases.

Western medicine slowly shifting 

According to Hugh Calkins, MD, director of the Cardiac Arrhythmia Service at Johns Hopkins Hospital, “a large number of studies show that yoga benefits many aspects of cardiovascular health. There’s been a major shift in the last five years or so in the number of cardiologists and other professionals recognizing that these benefits are real.”

More than 30 years ago Dean Ornish, MD, published the results of a randomized controlled study that convincingly showed that a yoga lifestyle (physical postures and breathwork practices, vegetarian diet, and meaningful personal connections) could reverse cardiovascular disease. Today, many more randomized controlled trials have found that yoga is effective for preventing and recovering from cardiovascular disease.

Yoga practices for cardiovascular care

The Ornish program includes yoga to “guide us inward and then set us gently in the heart of stillness and peace.” Women Heart is an organization dedicated to supporting women with heart disease and to educating people about how risk factors show up in women—who are unfortunately often misdiagnosed because their symptoms differ from men’s. Women Heart has a number of free online cardiac care yoga classes, because they have partnered with yoga therapists to include therapeutic yoga to their members. Although these 40-minute chair-based classes were developed to support people with cardiovascular disease—or at risk of or recovering from it—anyone can try their gentle movement, breathing, and meditation practices to reduce stress. As the Ornish program explains, therapeutic yoga is intended “to return [us] to a place of balance, which is where healing can occur.”