“If more of my patients practiced yoga, I would have more time to practice yoga.”
So says Dr. Gervasio Lamas, chief of the Columbia University Division of Cardiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center, and he not only prescribes the ancient Hindu practice, but he takes the medicine, too.
“As you move into your 50s you get these funny aches and pains. Yoga chases that away,” he said. “I remember when I was beginning to get up in the morning, different, random, stupid things would hurt. My wife got me to start doing yoga and it all went away.”
Lamas’ primary concern was stiffness in his neck where he holds tension. X-rays revealed that nothing was physically wrong. Yoga, which he has practiced for about eight years, erased the pain. Positions like the downward dog, in which the neck is elongated and relaxed, were particularly effective.
Now Lamas, 61, regularly recommends yoga to his cardiovascular patients and is encouraged with the results.
Take Sally Mertens, 70, who went to Lamas to treat a heart condition. She added yoga to her workout regimen 11 years ago but took it up in earnest about two years ago to help manage her condition and to lower her cholesterol, she said.
“Several years ago when I showed up for my regular twice-a-year check up, Dr. Lamas took a look at me and said, ‘Are you sure you’re in the right office? You don’t look like the other people in my waiting room.’ Made me laugh. And I loved hearing it. He’s right — most cardiac patients don’t look as healthy as I do.”
Mertens, who lives in Miami, also swims laps about a mile a week but says it’s only when she misses a yoga session or two that she’ll notice she feels off her game. “I do at least 10 to 15 minutes every morning, in addition to trying to get to class three times a week. I don’t come alive in the morning until I’ve done at least my minimal routine. That’s the wonderful thing about yoga, you need no special equipment.”
Mertens, who is widowed with two grown children and has a doctorate in cognitive psychology, also manages her healthcare through her diet and avoids processed foods.
“Like most cardiac patients, I eat heart healthy,” she said. “Although most of my blood indicators are average, my cholesterol is particularly excellent. Dr. Lamas says my HDL score is one of the best he ever sees. I suspect it’s the yoga difference.”
Numerous studies have upheld “the yoga difference” on improved cardiovascular health, improvements in how patients manage cancer, and treatments for arthritis and chronic pain, among other ailments.
The American College of Cardiology released the results of a 2011 study by the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of Kansas that found that patients who engaged in yoga reduced their episodes of irregular heartbeat or atrial fibrillation. A Temple University study in Philadelphia in 2007 found that women who were enrolled in Iyengar yoga, a stretching and relaxing program geared toward seniors, had improved flexibility and strides, along with balance, which has great implications given that falls among the elderly can lead to a host of complications.
“I recommend this to many patients but very few practice yoga, and I do think the barriers to getting people to practice yoga are preconceptions that it’s a lot of people sitting around in lotus positions, and some might think it’s sort of hippiesh,” Lamas said.
“The key to this is strength, flexibility and balance. It consumes calories. You get stronger. If you work your way into a vigorous yoga practice there are cardiovascular benefits associated with it. You have the opportunity to make it as hard or as easy as you want.”
Paula Walker, a yoga instructor at Green Monkey, which has studios in Midtown Miami, Miami Beach and South Miami, says that yoga works as a cardio exercise for several reasons. Primary among them, the controlled deep breathing routines that are endemic to most forms of yoga, especially in the popular hatha style.
“Breathing is probably one of the most important things, if not the most important, in yoga. When we slow down our breath rate this lowers our blood pressure and calms our sympathetic nervous system. When we stretch and move the body we breathe and are mindful and these are benefits for people who have cardiovascular disease — preventative measures,” Walker said.
“Exercising the muscles by doing yoga is good for the heart and blood circulation and can help control our blood sugar, our cholesterol,” Walker added.
Plus, yoga, a series of asanas (various postures) and breathing exercises ( pranayama) which date back to ancient India, de-stress by their fluid movements and cool-down savasanas (relaxation techniques).
“When I see people come in the studio stressed out from traffic or from being with the kids all day they look frazzled and when they leave they have that yoga glow,” Walker said. “They are blissed-out and breathing calmly. It’s clear as daylight.”
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