Teaching Yoga: Pranayama for Heart Health

yoga trainingBy Faye Martins

A Yoga teacher may empower students with many qualities.  Among those qualities is the ability to think for one’s self.  If something doesn’t make sense, you have a right to question it.  At the same time, when pranayama makes so much sense, why do so many people ignore it?  It may be that if one’s health is good, he or she takes pranayama for granted.  If we have a heart condition or severe disease, we appreciate each breath, each moment, and each day.


In 2006, Dr. Patricia Uber, heart specialist from the University of Maryland in Baltimore, urged doctors to consider three low-tech alternatives for treating their patients: prayer, poetry and Pranayama. The Seattle forum in which she spoke gives professionals with unorthodox views an opportunity to share them with other open-minded researchers.

Dr. Uber said: “In the armamentarium of things to treat heart failure, we’ve thought of everything, except we’ve forgotten that heart failure is really a disorder of breath, and all of our treatment options indirectly treat the breath in heart failure. Luckily, our breath is under both involuntary and voluntary control, but yet we still choose to ignore it.”


Dr. Lynne Warner Stevenson from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts followed with the prediction that breathing techniques could be a routine part of treatment within the following decade.

Yogic Breathing 

Pranayama is the Yogic name for ancient controlled breathing techniques that produce slow inhalations followed by breath retention and slow exhalations, a process that harmonizes breathing and lowers blood pressure.

All heart patients have disrupted breathing patterns. As heart failure progresses, however, breathing grows increasingly out of sync with blood pressure oscillation waves, known in medical terms as Mayer waves. Commercial devices have been created to synchronize heart rate variability, but simpler methods may be just as effective. In some studies, breath rates have been slowed to as little as six breaths per minute with breathing exercises.

In some instances, Uber says that results from deep breathing have been as beneficial as those achieved with longtime use of ACE-inhibitor therapy. While still not accepted as a part of standard medical care, the use of alternative and complementary procedures is growing in medical communities.


Bhastrika or “Bellows Breath”

The first of seven recommended techniques, Bhastrika uses strong, deep inhalations and exhalations that mimic the actions of bellows. Practiced for only two to five minutes, it improves metabolism and clears the mind, sending a fresh supply of oxygen to the heart, lungs, and brain.

Precautions include practicing on an empty stomach, preferably in early morning. People who have medical problems, especially high blood pressure or heart ailments, should consult a doctor before proceeding at a slow pace and slowly increasing time and levels of exertion. Feelings of discomfort or lightheadedness are signals to slow down or temporarily discontinue the practice.

How to Do Bhastrika if You are in Good Health

• Sit in a comfortable position with an erect spine and closed eyes, using a chair if unable to sit cross-legged on the floor.

• Inhale forcefully through the nose until the lungs are filled with air.

• Hold for less than a second and release forcefully, but evenly, through the nostrils, pulling in the abdomen.

• Continue for two to five minutes, stopping earlier if exercise becomes uncomfortable.

To practice Bhastrika with a video, please visit: https://www.yoga-teacher-training.org/yoga-community/yoga-teacher-video-resource-center/

Side Notes for Yoga Instructors

Heart Patients and Yoga students with high blood pressure should not practice any pranayama technique forcefully or fast.  It never hurts to take a pranayama course or attend a yoga teacher training intensive for continuing education credits.  The knowledge you pass onto your Yoga students is a life saver.

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