Archive for the ‘yoga for heart health’ Category

Indian men, specifically coronary patients, responded well to Raga Desi Todi (Hindustani classical music), in a study measuring psychophysiological reactions to music at the Banares Hindu University, Varanasi, India. The men listened to the slow-paced, taped raga played on the flute for 30 minutes a day for 20 days. Healthy controls did the same.

Music’s historic role in healing, cultural and religious rituals, spiritual traditions, yoga (kirtan is devotional chanting, often of mantras), nada yoga (includes Indian classical music), has led researchers and neuroscientists to explore ways in which music can improve health and a sense of well-being. The study concluded that

1. music significantly lowered both systolic and diastolic and heart  blood pressure and heart rate in the coronary patients

2. music had no significant effect on these measures in the control group

3. both groups reported reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression; and an enhancement in life satisfaction, hope, optimism, and meaning in life

Source: “Psychophysiological reactions to music in male coronary patients and healthy controls”, Psychology of Music, June 2014  http://pom.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/06/05/0305735614536754.abstract

Several other studies have found that listening to music, playing music, increases positive emotions by stimulating parts of the brain that produce dopamine (makes us feel good). In fact, almost all brain centers light up. Levels of cortisol, associated with anxiety and stress, are lowered.

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Did you know that there are three types of hypertension? Even though it seems obvious to some extent once you read this, there is no distinction made by many doctors or studies.

In The New York Times, “Keeping Blood Pressure Under Check” written by Jane E. Brody on January 28, 2013 we learn that there are three underlying causes or “mechanisms” for hypertension (which is another way of saying high blood pressure). No yoga research study that I have seen makes a distinction of underlying causes. Studies just state “hypertension” or “high blood pressure”. After learning this new information from the excellent Times article, it makes sense that yoga therapy may be more effective with one underlying cause more than with the others and it is important to know the cause, or the combination of causes, to determine the effectiveness.

According to the article there are 76 million people in the U.S. who suffer from hypertension. A normal blood pressure range is generally from 90 over 60 to 120 over 80. More than 50 percent of those who suffer from high blood pressure do not have it under control.

Of particular interest is what Dr. Samuel J. Mann, a hypertension specialist and professor of clinical medicine at Weill-Cornell Medical College, has to say, ” Of the 71 percent of people with hypertension who are currently being treated, too many are taking the wrong drugs or the wrong dosages of the right ones.”

Dr. Mann, is the author of Hypertension and You: Old Drugs, New Drugs, and the Right Drugs for Your High Blood Pressure. 

Here is a direct passage from the article:

The trick to prescribing the best treatment for each patient is to first determine which of three mechanisms, or combination of mechanisms, is responsible for a patient’s hypertension, he said.

¶ Salt-sensitive hypertension, more common in older people and African-Americans, responds well to diuretics and calcium channel blockers.

¶ Hypertension driven by the kidney hormone renin responds best to ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers, as well as direct renin inhibitors and beta-blockers.

¶ Neurogenic hypertension is a product of the sympathetic nervous system and is best treated with beta-blockers, alpha-blockers and drugs like clonidine.

According to Dr. Mann, neurogenic hypertension results from repressed emotions. He has found that many patients with it suffered trauma early in life or abuse. They seem calm and content on the surface but continually suppress their distress, he said.

It is the last one, neurogenic hypertension, that is the most likely to respond to yoga therapy. Yoga works directly on the sympathetic nervous system.

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Happy New Year to Everyone!

Current Issue

Each year we find there is more yoga and meditation content freely available. We begin this year with the first digital issue, Winter 2012,  of Yoga International.  This is an excellent publication from the Himalayan Institute based in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Now anyone with Internet access can read its content.

This issue features a healthy heart guide, breathing techniques to curb emotions, yoga in the Middle East, upward dog and the back, and the story of four women changing the destiny of yoga.

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This post, following up on the previous post, offers specific suggestions and a process for safe breathing for pranayama and increasing lung capacity.

Asana: Some gentle movements can definitely help loosen muscles and help tone the diaphragm and lungs for better breathing. Refer to the movements of the Upper Body on Mahasri Yoga.

A few other movements are palm tree pose (tadasana), swaying palm tree pose (tiryaka tadasana), waist rotating pose (kati chakrasana) cat/cow (marjariasana), cobra (bhujangasana), fish (matsyasana), bow (dhanurasana), shoulder pose (kandharasana), bridge (setu). This blog uses asana names from the Satyananda Yoga style.

Body Relaxation: After doing 15-20 minutes of simple physical movements or asanas of your choice, we suggest the following audio tracks that are free downloads (like podcasts) from Mahasri Yoga–you can hear everything directly from your computer speakers. Try one track for a week or two (practicing five days a week). This will take four to eight weeks. It is our belief that it is important for those new to this to go slowly and establish a firm foundation for most gain.

  • Base Position:
    A proper physical posture can be important for practicing pranayama and meditation. Three different positions are described here to accommodate varying needs: sitting on a chair, sitting on the floor, and lying down. They can be tried out to determine which one is the most comfortable for your body.
  • Body Stillness:
    The first step to having an effective pranayama practice or meditation practice is learning to use the breath to still and calm the body. As long as the body is restless or tense, the mind is drawn to the body and distracted by it. Making any progress in pranayama is difficult in the agitated or distracted state.
  • Deepening Body Awareness:
    After establishing a base position and learning to still the body, we deepen body awareness. The process of witnessing the body as a spectator deepens the process of relaxation, and that in turn facilitates more efficient rhythmic breathing.
Observing the breath: Before any attempt is made to control the breath, there must a strong awareness of the breath–how it moves in the body, how it feels. The following audio track may be of help.
  • Breath Awareness:
    With this practice we continue the process of deepening awareness of the breath by becoming more sensitive and observant. This can help curb the constant vortex of thoughts that spin around and around. We observe more deeply when the mind is becoming inert and sleepy or going off in tangents. Then through the will power of the witnessing awareness, the mind is trained to stay anchored and focused on the breath. It learns to rest on the breath.

The next post will provide links to audio tracks that begin controlling the breath gently at an individual pace, not a given count.

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Here are the problems with being told to count to 4, 5, 6 while breathing in and doing the same breathing out by various sources (newsletter from our medical provider, yoga books, stress management advice, etc.):

Average rate of breathing: I have been watching the number of breaths per minute, called eupnea, in the age range of 14 to 87 years. It is about 15 breaths per minute. It is in the range of the figures cited by a Bihar School of Yoga book on prana. Going online, Wikipedia confirms that the observation falls roughly in the middle of the range. So assuming 15 breaths per minute, each breath is 4 seconds or a count of 4–2 in and 2 out. It is also counted by counting the number of times the chest rises in one minute.

Stretching the breath: So if people are asked to double or triple the duration of their breath, they are likely to strain their lungs, have discomfort in the chest, and feel light-headed. Longer breath is more calming but there is a method to it. Before beginning a breath control exercise, observe the length of your own natural breath.

Those of us who for years have trained ourselves to breathe from the belly may not have a significant rise in the chest and that may affect the counting based on chest rises.

Chest breathing versus belly breathing: Most people are chest breathers. Try breathing through the chest and lengthening the breath (I did for this blog post) and see what happens. The breath creates tightness and discomfort in the chest. After a few of these breaths, people may experience gasping and shortness of breath. A short breath seems to feel fine in the chest but not a long one. The chest fills up quickly and it is a more stressful breath. It is good when you need quick bursts of oxygen in times of stress. However, if you learn to breathe from the belly (also called abdominal breath) it is much easier to lengthen and deepen the breath. There is no tightness, no discomfort as long as you don’t overdo it. The back must be straight and the chest very slightly raised, otherwise the breath is constricted, strangled, and short. This breath is relaxed and soothing.

Gradual lengthening: The breath cannot be doubled or tripled at once. The lungs cannot be stretched that much without strain. It must be done gradually, slowly. This is a step-by-step, systematic process: relax the body and mind, become aware of the body, and become familiar with the breath. Then breathe with the whole body flushing out the respiratory system and gently stretching it with comfort. This brings awareness of the breath in all parts of the respiratory system. Then teach the body how to breathe from the belly and retrain it. The body is then ready to pace the breath to a comfortable count and adding one second at a time till the breath settles to the new pace–just like in exercise, repetitions and sets are gradually added. Adding sound is an effective way to stretch the breath.

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Mahasri Yoga is now on You Tube. Certain breathing practices help significantly with hypertension. It is hoped that the following two audio tracks in English and Gujarati recently uploaded on You Tube will be helpful and enjoyable:

Mahasri Yoga: Pranayama-Body Stillness (English)

Mahasri Yoga: Pranayama-Body Stillness (Gujarati)

Dealing with hypertension in its early stages, using yoga and breath awareness, is much easier than when it progresses extensively. Prevention is better than cure. These are simple, effective, basic practices used before starting the more familiar pranayamas.

As stated on www.mahasriyoga.com/pranayama:

“The first step to having an effective pranayama practice or meditation practice is learning to use the breath to still and calm the body. As long as the body is restless or tense, the mind is drawn to the body and distracted by it. Making any progress in pranayama is difficult in the agitated or distracted state.

Conscious breathing, used to become aware of the physical body, will allow you to stop running ragged with the mind and emotions. It gives you a way to slow down, to stop. When you breathe in, know that you breathe in. When you breathe out, know that you breathe out. Without your attention, your awareness, the emotions run out of energy and slow down. With the awareness focused on the breath and body instead of on thoughts, the mind becomes still, the body calm.

A still body, not a sleeping body, tends to increase attention span and pacify a restless mind. A restless body can be a reflection of a scattered and unfocused mind. This practice will help the body become still and quiet, the mind more focused. It is also effective in releasing stress and pain.”

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Several studies have indicated the positive effects of alternate nostril breathing (ANB)/anuloma viloma on heart rates, blood pressure, and hypertension. The study cited below provides some of the specific research papers. However, this study in the International Journal of Yoga, Ghiya S, Lee CM. Influence of alternate nostril breathing on heart rate variability in non-practitioners of yogic breathing. Int J Yoga 2012;5:66-9,  compares the effect of ANB to the practice of paced breathing (PB)/samavritti pranayama. Why is this important?

The breathing in both is paced at the same rate, but in one it alternates between nostrils and in the other it is through both nostrils.

The aim of the study was to compare the effects of the two types of yogic breathing in people who had no experience of either practice. Here is the description of the breathing practices used in the study along with the rate of breathing and the time spent on it. It works as a yogic breathing prescription for stage 1 hypertension.

“Alternate nostril breathing : While sitting in a crossed leg position, participants inhaled through the left nostril, held the breath for a moment while keeping both nostrils closed, then exhaled from the right nostril keeping the left nostril closed. This was followed by inhalation through the right nostril and exhalation through left nostril in the same manner. The participants repeated this cycle at a breathing rate of 5 breaths/min-1 for 30 min. Paced Breathing: The participants were instructed to breathe normally while maintaining a breathing rate of 5 breaths/min-1 for 30 min. An investigator provided verbal cues to ensure that the appropriate breathing rate was maintained.”

It is known that ANB may increase parasympathetic activity (ida nadi) for reduced basal heart rate, lower blood pressure and improved autonomic nervous system function over the long-term.

The study states that, “On the other hand, there is less information on autonomic nervous system function in the time period immediately following a session of yogic breathing.” So we still do not know the immediate effect conclusively according to the authors.

They concluded that their research suggests that both ANB and PB were equally effective in their sample.

Now this is of great interest and important to me as two of the seniors I work with have Parkinson’s. They both find ANB helpful in calming anxiety and a reduction in tremors for short durations of time. However, they can only practice 10 breaths with comfort (about one or two minutes). After that they feel light- headed. The arm gets tired (for most people) as the right hand is used to manipulate the nostrils. What if PB, which does not require the arm to be held up, has the same effect? Is it possible to practice PB for longer periods of time than ANB and have the same effect? Does the light-headed feeling lessen or disappear with PB? It is something we shall try out. These are questions for a vast range of people, not just seniors or those who suffer from Parkinson’s.


Ghiya S, Lee CM. Influence of alternate nostril breathing on heart rate variability in non-practitioners of yogic breathing. Int J Yoga [serial online] 2012 [cited 2012 May 26];5:66-9. Available from: http://www.ijoy.org.in/text.asp?2012/5/1/66/91717

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