If you’ve suffered a heart attack, or have heart problems, one of the best ways you can help yourself may be to start a regular yoga or meditation practice. Why? The heart of the matter is stress reduction.
Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and founder of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, is one of the pioneers in the mind-body field. Benson hypothesized that since stress and anxiety were taking a physical toll on people with heart disease, teaching patients to reduce their stress was a key component to keeping them healthy. He discovered that lowering blood pressure was indeed linked to stress reduction. His groundbreaking work has begun to help change Western medicine beginning what has sometimes been dubbed the "relaxation revolution." He has since developed methods to teach patients to learn how to elicit the “relaxation response,” which includes both mind and body relaxation techniques.
The other reason that mind-body exercise is good for your heart is it's not just your heart that is affected after a heart attack. Preliminary research done on rats suggests heart attacks may change your brain. Indeed, this research may help explain why 15 to 30 percent of heart attack survivors experience sleepless nights and sadness, which was previously blamed on stress. The scientists found that two weeks after a heart attack certain brain cells, which are responsible for sleep, decrease in the brain. Now this does not explain all the sleepless nights, but it could in part explain why some heart attack survivors suffer from insomnia and other sleep difficulties.
If that study alone doesn't convince you of the mind-body connection, here's one that may. One study, published in the “Annals of Internal Medicine” concluded there is one key question your doctor may forget to ask you that could save many people's lives, "How many hours do you work?" That's right, the study found a direct correlation between people who worked long hours and those at higher risk for coronary heart disease. People who work a lot, are stressed a lot. Stress is bad for the heart, so it makes sense then that learning relaxation techniques to keep stress in check is a key component to heart health.
There is a growing body of research that shows meditation and relaxation exercises have been clinically proven to help reduce insomnia and depression symptoms. In fact, one recent study specifically focusing on tai chi and heart attack survivors found the meditative exercise helped improve the quality of life and mood. The study involved 100 people who were receiving treatment for heart failure. Half of the participants enrolled in an eight-week tai chi course, while the other simply read information about healthy living. The tai chi participants reported a better mood lift and more confidence in their physical capabilities. Although this study focused on tai chi, other types of relaxation exercises such as yoga and Pilates have similar affects on the mind.
Finally, there have been numerous studies that show meditation can ease pain. Mindfulness-based meditation and relaxation classes are available online and through most health insurance networks. Additionally, there are free podcasts and smartphone apps available like Meditation Oasis. Almost every gym now offers yoga, and if the gym is not for you, purchase some DVDs. The key is to find the right relaxation practice for you that fits into your lifestyle.