Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Yoga for the brain -Part 5- The cardiovascular health connection

It has been known for some time that the healthier your heart, the less likely you are to develop impaired cognitive function, Alzheimer's and dementia.  Keeping your heart healthy means exercise and eating healthily, avoiding obesity and taking steps to manage stress.  

Exercise combined with a healthy diet can keep cholesterol at a healthy level and this prevents build up of plaque which can block the blood vessels supplying both the heart and the brain. At worst this can lead to a heart attack or stroke but less drastically it can lead to small areas of the brain losing function.  

Exercise also improves the function of the heart (remember the heart is essentially a muscle) and this improves circulation to the brain which improves oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain (your brain consumes around 20% of the body's oxygen and energy even though it is only around 2% of your body weight).  This improved circulation to the brain seems to prevent the build up of beta-amyloid in the brain which is associated with Alzheimer's.

Yoga can help with cardiovascular health in several ways.  Firstly, we have already looked at how it improves circulation to the brain.  Please see 'Yoga for the brain Part 2- Nourishing the brain'- 

Also yoga reduces inflammation in the body, which can affect the functioning of the heart and lead to decline of cognitive abilities.  Yoga also reduces stress. Please see 'Yoga for the brain Part 1 - Stress'  for how stress affects the brain.  A further benefit of yoga is that it improves lung capacity and function so that the heart does not have to work quite so hard and the brain has the oxygen it needs.

The following yoga sequence includes Sun Salutations to exercise the heart and get the blood circulating.  Sun Salutations also boost the metabolism helping to keep you at a healthy weight.  

The practice also focuses on stress relief and opening the chest for improved lung capacity and function.  The inversion is a mini aerobic workout for the heart because it brings blood to the heart.  For this reason if you do have heart issues or high blood pressure, a Legs up the Wall variation with your lower legs on a chair and your head on a cushion might be a better. You will need two blocks or equivalent. 

Start with a few rounds of Sun Salutations (please see 'Yoga pose gallery' ) then take a Child's pose.

Rolling Cat - come to all fours, breathe out and arch through your back, take your bottom back to your heels, breathe in, bend your elbows out to the sides and come forward to return to all fours.  Continue in a smooth rolling motion working with your breath for several moves. 

Bow pose - lie on your tummy with your arms by your sides, palms down, your forehead on the mat. Press your tailbone back to lengthen your spine.  Bend both knees and reach round with both hands to take hold of your ankles.  If you cannot reach, you could use a yoga strap or equivalent round your ankles. Inhale and press your feet up and back, lifting your chest from the mat.  Hold for a few breaths and exhale to release. Take a Child's Pose.  
If full Bow Pose is too much for you, try half Bow.  Lie with your arms stretched forward, forehead to the mat.  Bend the right knee and reach round with your right hand to hold your right ankle. Inhale and press the right foot up and back, lifting the chest from the mat.  Slide your left hand back and use the left hand to stabilise you.  Repeat second side then take a Child's pose.

Triangle pose - stand in the middle of the mat and step your feet a leg length apart, turn the right leg out and the left foot in 45 degrees.  Ladies should align their heels, men should align front heel to back instep.  Bring your hands to your heart, then on a breath in stretch your arms wide and lift your chest.  Breathe out and shift your hips to the left and you extend over your right leg, bringing your right hand to rest on your ankle, shin or thigh.  If you are very flexible you can bring your hand down to the floor behind the right foot.  Your gaze can be up at your left thumb if your neck allows, or down at your right big toe. To come out of the pose, breathe in and windmill your arms back to shoulder height , breathe out turn your feet to face forward and your hands to heart centre. Repeat second side.

Seated twist - sit on a block or the mat with your legs outstretched.  Bend your right knee, drawing it close in to your chest.  Breathe in, lengthen your spine, breathe out, wrap your left arm around your right knee and twist to the right.Take your right hand behind your right hip to support you.  If it feels comfortable for your neck and you have a good twist through your spine, turn to look over your right shoulder.  Hold and breathe then inhale, lengthen through the crown of your head, exhale release the twist.  Repeat second side.

Seated Forward Bend - sit on a block with your legs outstretched.  Breathe in stretch your arms up, breathe out fold over your legs bringing your arms down either side of your leg. Stay here for 5-10 breaths, then breathe in to come up slowly. 

Supported Shoulder Stand - lie on your mat with your knees bent.  Breathe in and lift your hips, and place two blocks under your hips so that the long edge of the block is parallel to the short edge of the mat, then lower.  Lift your hips once more and draw the top block half way towards you.  Lift your legs so that your toes come over your face - the top block will tip and support your lower back.  Hold for a few breaths then bring your feet back to the mat. Breathe in, lift your hips, remove the blocks then lower your hips.  Hug your knees in and rock from side to side.

Rest back in savasana for a few minutes.

You may also like:-

'Yoga for the brain-Part 3- Integrating right and left hemispheres'

'Yoga for the brain-Part 4-New neural connections and pathways'

If you do have heart issues ALWAYS check with your doctor before undertaking a yoga practice.


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