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The Benefits of Cardiac Yoga

By Barb Palar and Sally Finder-Koziol

Good news if you find traditional exercise challenging: The gentle practice of seated yoga reaps benefits that can reduce blood pressure and stress.

Yoga: It’s not just for pretzels anymore. Heart patients—even those who are only able to do their workouts sitting down—can enjoy the benefits of the gentle stretching, deep breathing, and healing imagery offered by cardiac yoga.

“Cardiac yoga is a modified version of traditional yoga practice,” explains Mala Cunningham, Ph.D., founder and director of Cardiac Yoga and president of Positive Health Solutions. “We need to make sure that the movements are safe and easy for the heart patient.”

For example, while a traditional sun salutation yoga movement is done standing up, she says, cardiac yoga lets you do the pose sitting in a chair. As you gain strength and confidence, you do the pose standing behind the chair, using it as support. Eventually, you move into a full yoga routine.

Pete Bishop, one of Cunningham’s students, did just that. “I attribute a lot of my good health today to her,” the 71-year-old Virginian says. He especially embraces the relaxation and deep breathing techniques used in yoga, which he says have improved his outlook on life—something that was at a low point after 21 catheterizations, 18 angioplasties, three stents, and a quadruple bypass. “My wife says I got pretty hateful for a while,” Pete says. “It does change you.”

Cunningham agrees. “Heart patients often go through a grieving process,” she says. “They might have to adjust their entire lifestyle. They may be forced to retire. They are sometimes losing their identity and sense of self-worth. Yoga can help the patient relax and feel better about life overall.”

And they don’t just think things are better. Yoga brings actual physical benefits. A 2004 Yale University School of Medicine study shows that people who do yoga and meditate at least three times a week can lower their blood pressure and resting heart rate, which cuts their risk of heart problems.

Richard Cripe is living proof. After his fifth heart attack in February 2005, Richard’s cardiologist told him that medical science couldn’t help him anymore. “I was basically told to go home and enjoy what was left of my life,” he says.

What Richard did was make drastic changes, including retiring from a fast-paced government career in Washington, D.C., switching to a vegan diet, and embracing yoga. After a year, during which he worked up to a daily 45-minute cardiac yoga routine, he took a cardiac stress test. “My doctor called me at 8:30 that night and said my results were amazing,” says Richard, age 55. His numbers, which had hovered around the mark indicating congestive heart failure, were now normal.

Including yoga in a heart-friendly diet and exercise regimen has been life-changing for Richard as well as for Pete Bishop, the once-bitter cardiac patient.

“Before my heart problems, my wife and I would go to the movies, and she would cry and I would laugh at her. Now we go to the movies, I cry, and she laughs at me,” Pete says. Thanks to his yoga practice, he now faces the world with a healthier—and kinder—heart.

Sign Up for Cardiac Yoga
A qualified yoga teacher should be able to modify the poses to fit a person’s abilities. For instructors near you, check; or for information on cardiac yoga and sample yoga postures, visit A medical yoga manual by Mala Cunningham is available for $25 by calling 434/297-7100.

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