Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Heart of Our Breath

written by Dana Layon, ERYT

It’s a staggering fact – heart disease is a killer. According to the American Heart Association, coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, causing about 1.5 million heart attacks each year. Additionally, more women than men die from heart disease in the U.S., and 1 in 3 women are living with it today.

Since we all know the statistics, instead of living in fear, let’s ask ourselves: What causes heart disease and how do we prevent it? There are risk factors that can’t be changed such as genetics and aging. Otherwise, the following risk factors can be modified, treated or controlled by incorporating yoga and meditation into our daily lifestyle:

Physical activity
High blood pressure
Smoking cigarettes
Drinking too much alcohol

First and foremost, yoga influences the hypothalamus gland directly, the area of the brain that controls endocrine activity, and helps prevent heart attacks. A complete yoga program consists of breath control (pranayama), physical postures (asanas), sleep control (yoga nidra) and mind control (meditation). Our yoga practice can look different every day – practicing physically to tone, strengthen and stretch the body one day, meditating, breathing or reading a book in silence the next. Yoga is dynamic and can change our life, physically, mentally, emotionally and energetically.

Let’s start with the simple act of breathing. Normally we use only 1/3 of our lung capacity when we breathe, if we are breathing at all. When we slow, rhythmic breathe we allow the body’s systems to function properly. Breathing slowly and rhythmically increases circulation, lowers blood pressure, lowers the heart rate and tells the brain that everything is working perfectly in the body. Conscious breathing takes us away from “flight or flight” mode and brings us to a state of calm awareness.

Breath control not only improves circulatory and respiratory function but is also a key component in mind control. We all experience stress regardless of gender, age and socioeconomic status. It’s how we perceive or respond to that stress that is important. If we can breathe when we are uncomfortable, anxious or stressed, we reduce stress and make decisions on how to react or not react with much more clarity and less emotion. Controlling our emotions with our breath can lower our blood pressure immensely.

When we control our breath consciously and are aware of our emotions, we make conscious decisions with regard to our physical body. We realize we are in control of our own health – we decide to exercise, eat right, and smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. It’s all our choice that can be made with clarity once we slow down long enough to know what’s right for us.

Because of their effects on both the physical and energetic bodies, specific types of yoga postures can be used to control and even prevent heart disease.

Upper back bending poses that open the chest, improve heart function and respiration: Matsyasana (Fish), Kapotasana (Swan), Bhujangasana (Cobra), Ustrasana (Camel)

Side Bending poses open the energy channels of the liver, gallbladder and heart to help remove physical and energetic blockages in the heart and the chest: Parighasana (Gate), Maricyasana (Twists), Virabhadrasana (Warriors), Trikonasana (Triangle), Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon)

Spine lengthening poses promote proper postural alignment, reducing compression of the heart and the lungs facilitating proper functioning of the heart. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge), Dandasana (Staff), Marjaryasana (Cat), Adho Mukha Savanasana (Downward Dog)

Relaxing poses such as Savasana produce a deeply calming effect on the body and has been proven to reduce stress and lower blood pressure in just a few weeks.

The physical practice of yoga is all encompassing because it combines physical activity, breath control and mind control. Classes can be as short as one hour or up to 2 hours. It is advisable for beginners to seek the yoga class that is right for them.

The value of guided instruction is priceless. Be sure to seek a certified yoga instructor prior to beginning yoga on your own. Many injuries related to yoga are caused by lack of instruction, attending a class beyond your level of fitness and performing the poses incorrectly for your body. Be sure to find the right yoga style and instructor for your body.

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