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Experts say yoga has a variety of components that make it beneficial for the whole body. Rob and Julia Campbell/Stocksy
  • Researchers say yoga combined with regular exercise is more beneficial than stretching.
  • Experts say yoga can boost immunity, increase flexibility, and reduce anxiety, among other benefits.
  • They say yoga can be strenuous, so it’s best to consult with a medical professional before starting a regular routine.

When added to an exercise regimen, yoga is more effective than stretching at supporting cardiovascular health and well-being, according to a study published today in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology.

Researchers recruited 60 individuals previously diagnosed with high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome for the study.

The scientists divided the participants into two groups. One group completed structured yoga for 15 minutes and then 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. The other group completed stretching exercises with 30 minutes of aerobic exercise.

Both groups exercised five times per week.

At the start of the study, both groups had blood pressure, anthropometry, high-sensitivity c-reactive protein, glucose, and lipid levels measured.

All the participants received Framingham and Reynolds Risk scores.

There was no difference between the groups in terms of age, sex, smoking rates, body mass index (BMI), mean arterial blood pressure, heart rate, and pulse pressure.

At the end of the three months, the researchers noted:

  • A decrease of 10 mmHg in blood pressure in the group completing yoga and aerobic exercises compared to 4 mmHg in the group completing stretching exercises and aerobic exercises.
  • Both groups saw decreases in resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure, mean arterial blood pressure, and heart rate.
  • The group completing yoga and aerobic exercises reduced their resting heart rate and 10-year cardiovascular risk, assessed using the Reynolds Risk score.

The scientists do not fully understand why yoga would have such an advantage in improving cardiovascular health over stretching but believe the results indicate a definite benefit to adding yoga to an exercise regimen.

“This trial is an important addition to evidence supporting mind-body therapies for controlling hypertension,” said Dr. Yu-Ming Ni, a cardiologist specializing in non-invasive cardiology at MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California.

“There has been a greater focus on the impact of stress on blood pressure in recent years, with multiple small studies suggesting that everything from transcendental meditation to breathing exercises to exercise therapy can improve blood pressure control,” Ni told Healthline. “Mind-body techniques have been shown to regulate the autonomic nervous system, which makes blood pressure less variable and easier to control.”

“Yoga has been shown to regulate the autonomic nervous system in a similar fashion, and previously was observed to lower blood pressure in small studies,” Ni added.

In one of those studies, 60 people were randomly assigned to an exercise program that included yoga or stretching and standard dynamic exercise.

“The reduction in blood pressure in both groups is a testament to the value of exercise in lowering blood pressure,” Ni said. “It’s important to note the 10 mmHg drop in blood pressure is like the effects of one blood pressure medication, so this is a meaningful drop in blood pressure. Patients with high blood pressure should consider mind-body therapies, including yoga, as ways to manage stress as part of a comprehensive lifestyle approach to control blood pressure.”

Yoga began as a spiritual process, but many people see it as physical and mental exercise and relaxation.

In the United States, yoga often emphasizes physical poses, breathing techniques, and meditation, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Yoga is truly the whole package. You get a little bit of everything and it can be beneficial for just about anyone. Whether you’re an Olympic athlete or work at a desk for 8 hours a day, there is a type of yoga for every type of body,” said Montana Mitchell, a master trainer with YogaSix.

“What sets yoga apart from other fitness modalities is the mind-body connection, which is initiated through intentional and specific breath techniques,” Mitchell told Healthline. “These breathing techniques, also known as pranayama, activate your parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and lower your resting heart rate. Breath is the root of yoga. Therefore, regardless of the genre that best suits the practitioner’s needs, there will always be some sort of cardio health benefits at play.”

Experts say that when you practice yoga, you pay attention to your physical body and your emotional well-being.

“I believe that yoga offers mind-body benefits beyond stretching alone,” said Lisa Killion, a yoga instructor and certified holistic health coach based in Rowayton, Connecticut.

“Stretching is terrific for the body, but it doesn’t address the underlying issues such as stress and anxiety, that may lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular health issues,” she told Healthline. “Yoga can help with both.”

“Stretching is one component of yoga,” Killion added. “A well-rounded yoga practice offers a set of tools that includes stretching and strengthening, as well as mind-focusing activities like breathing exercises and meditation. Used together, a yoga practitioner can calm the nervous system and bring the body and mind into balance. This rebalancing affects all systems of the body including cardiovascular health.“

Yoga has been around for thousands of years, although people in the western world only started when yoga masters started traveling to the West in the late 1800s.

Since then, research frequently shows that there are both physical and mental benefits to practicing yoga regularly, according to Yoga Basics.

“We think the reason yoga provides benefits is multifaceted,” said Dr. Rigved Tadwalkar, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.

“From the perspective of blood pressure, possible mechanisms include greater bioavailability of nitric oxide, which leads to vasodilation, as well as lowered levels of cortisol, a stress hormone implicated in increasing blood pressure, particularly when dysregulated,” Tadwalkar told Healthline. “More generally, we believe that yoga helps regulate the autonomic nervous system, promoting the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn slows the heart rate, and calms the body, encouraging relaxation.

It would make sense that yoga could involve such a diversity of important pathways, as the practice itself is intricate, involving a blend of physical, mental, and spiritual components.

When broken down, this includes exercises related to concentration, meditation, breathing, posture, and strength.

Some of the benefits of yoga are:

  • Improved flexibility and strength
  • Decreased anxiety and stress
  • Improved mental health and self-esteem
  • Decreased inflammation
  • Improved quality of life
  • Boost to immunity
  • Better balance, posture, and body awareness
  • Increase cardiovascular functioning and improve bone health
  • Improve sleep
  • Improve brain functioning

“For people who suffer from hypertension and are at a higher risk for a cardiac episode, practicing yoga was shown to improve cardiovascular health over just simple stretching,” said Allison Benzaken, a yoga instructor certified in Yin Yoga through Kaia Yoga who has completed 500 certified Yoga Alliance teacher training hours. “Why? Because when one practices yoga, which is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, “to unite” or union, the practitioner is not only benefiting from the physical aspects of the practice of yoga (bodily postures), but also from the effects the practice has on the mind and spirit (the union).”

“Typically, during a yoga class, instructors include pranayama (breath control), chanting, and meditation into the practice, which relaxes not only the physical body but helps to calm the mind,” Benzaken told Healthline. “This helps to relieve overall stress and anxiety in a person.”

One way to add yoga to your regular workouts is to replace either your warm-up or cool-down with 10 to 15 minutes of yoga.

“If you’ve never taken a yoga class before, I suggest starting with foundational-level classes or a few private lessons from a local studio,” said Killion. “Give yourself 5 to 10 classes to ease into the practice and learn the basic poses and breathwork. Listen to your breath… if you are breathing too fast or holding your breath, that is your cue to ease out of the pose and rest. If you have questions or hear something doesn’t make sense during class, ask the teacher after class.”

When you first start an exercise program, experts say you should talk with your doctor about exercising and what is safe for you.

“Although moderate exercise is safe for most people, experts suggest speaking with a doctor first if you have heart or kidney disease and/or type 1 or 2 diabetes,” Benzaken said. “Also, speak with a doctor first if you are currently being treated for any severe medical condition or have had a recent surgical procedure.”