Breathe your way to a healthier heart

Susan Dawson-Cook

Heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that someone in the U.S. has a heart attack every 34 seconds. Talk about a frightening statistic. Many people turn to medication and exercise to reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke. Although both strategies are imperative to preventing the advancement of heart disease, there’s another one most people never consider—yoga breathing exercises or pranayama. Not only are yoga breathing exercises easy to do, they don’t take much time and can improve heart health and sense of well-being.

Dr. Heidi Sormaz, Director of Fresh Yoga, LLC in New Haven, Connecticut emphasizes the importance of breathing for heart health in her Great Courses DVD, Yoga for a Healthy Mind and Body.

When we feel stressed or are faced with a state of emergency, the sympathetic nervous system dominates. In these instances a steroid hormone called cortisol is released. Many people get so used to rushing around, they end up living in a constant state of stress. This nervous system imbalance wreaks havoc on the body. Yoga breathing exercises can reduce the release of stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate and revive the neglected parasympathetic nervous system.

Somaz mentions three kinds of yoga breathing that facilitate heart health: Ujjayi, Sitali and Uddiyana. During each activity, breathe slow and deep. Feel the lower abdomen, the upper abdomen and then the rib cage expand during inhalation and draw the belly in during the exhalation. Never force yourself to breathe at a rate slower than what is comfortable because this isn’t safe.

Ujjayi breathing heats up your body and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. When breathing in and out, make a sound in your throat that sounds like a whisper or perhaps Darth Vader breathing through his mask. Try it first with the mouth open until it feels more comfortable.

Sitali breathing lowers blood pressure. First, purse the lips (like a kiss) or roll your tongue and stick it out (if you can do that), breathing through the small opening in the mouth while doing Ujjayi breathing.

Uddiyana breathing increases the duration and capacity of the breath. It is easiest to do standing up at first. Inhale and then exhale all air forcefully, drawing the belly in. Hold the breath for a few seconds as you elevate the rib cage. Open the mouth and allow the air to rush into your lungs.

Try a few breaths when stress strikes and close your eyes for a few minutes daily and concentrate fully on the rhythm and feel of your breath. Your heart will thank you. Please remember to consult with a physician before starting any new activity.

Susan is an AFAA certified personal trainer and group exercise instructor and is employed by Vital Moves. She will complete her 200-hour Yoga Alliance certification course and begin teaching yoga classes in June.