High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a serious condition identified by increased pressure in the arteries, the vessels that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body. This pressure can damage the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Hypertension — defined as a blood pressure reading of 140/90 or higher — can cause fatigue, chest pain, loss of strength, dizziness, poor vision or blindness, insomnia, headaches, and breathing trouble. It can also be fatal.
There are 60,000 miles (97,000 km) of blood vessels in every human.
Lifestyle habits, like smoking and drinking alcohol, play a role in high blood pressure. Health conditions such as obesity, kidney disease, and diabetes are also risk factors. Yet, it can be caused by stress, anxiety, and emotional disturbances as well, all of which can be eased through regular exercise and relaxation practices — like yoga!
Relax with Yoga
Regular exercise and stress-reduction techniques can help to decrease the risks of hypertension. Strengthening your heart through physical activity helps it pump blood more efficiently. Physical activity improves circulation, bringing fresh, oxygenated blood to your working muscles and brain. This helps your brain absorb more oxygen — decreasing stress, increasing clarity, and allowing you to regain emotional balance. A vigorous yoga practice with pranayama (breathing exercises) will work your heart and lungs, increasing and strengthening your body’s capacity to take in oxygen.
Yoga teaches an awareness of the connection between mind, body, and spirit. Combined with meditation, this awareness is a lifestyle technique that can decrease stress and anxiety levels even when you’re "off the mat." Becoming aware of toxic thought patterns and habits can be the key to making positive changes in your life.
Practicing yoga involves three factors, all of which play a part in managing high blood pressure:
- Breathing techniques
- Gentle physical activity
Below is a deeper exploration of these practices, with information on how to perform each one. If you have high blood pressure, or if you’re at risk, be sure to check with your doctor before starting yoga.
Calm Awareness: Mindfulness Meditation
"Mindfulness" is a state of awareness that is nonreactive and non-attached. This meditation brings calm and focused attention to the endless stream of thoughts floating through your mind. Many beginners find it easier to learn mindfulness meditation by focusing attention on only one sensation, object, or thought — such as your breath, a candle, or the concept of forgiveness. Set aside a quiet place to practice and wear comfortable, nonrestrictive clothes.
- Come into Easy Pose (Sukhasana) (explained below). Adjust your position so your spine is erect. Sit with your head, neck, and spine in one straight line. You may also sit in a chair with your feet on the floor, arms and legs uncrossed.
- Close your eyes.
- Begin to regulate your breathing, inhaling for a count of five and exhaling for five. After a few deep breaths, breathe naturally again. Notice the sensation of the air as it travels in and out of your nose. Continue to bring your awareness back to your breath, in and out, in and out.
- Do not force yourself to concentrate. Simply notice when your mind wanders, then gently bring your awareness back to your breath. Consistently returning to the present moment takes patience and dedication. Be careful not to punish yourself for wandering thoughts.
- Now bring your awareness to the object of your focus. This might still be your breath. If it’s a visual object, like a candle, soften your gaze.
- Maintain your awareness. When your thoughts start to wander, gently guide them back to the object of your focus. Don’t fight the thoughts. Simply acknowledge them and let them pass, like clouds floating by in a summer sky.
- Do this exercise for 10 minutes a day, gradually extending your sessions to 20 or 30 minutes.
Breathing Exercise: Alternate Nostril Breathing
Nadi Shodhana (NAH-dee sho-DAHN-uh) — literally "channel clearing" — is a purifying pranayama that alternates the blockage of each nostril to channel air in a concentrated flow. It balances the nadis, or channels of energy in the body, while activating and harmonizing the left and right hemispheres of the brain to ease stress and anxiety.
- Sit in a comfortable, cross-legged position, such as the Easy Pose (Sukhasana) (explained below).
- Close the right nostril with your right thumb.
- Inhale deeply through the left nostril.
- Close the left nostril with the ring finger of your right hand as you release the right nostril.
- Slowly exhale through your right nostril.
- Keeping the left nostril closed, inhale deeply through your right nostril.
- Seal the right nostril again with your thumb, then release the left nostril.
- Exhale out of the left nostril. You should now be in the original position, with the thumb sealing the right nostril.
- Repeat the process ten times, gradually increasing the number of repetitions.
- Those with high blood pressure should not hold their breath at any time during this practice.
Calming Posture: Easy Pose
Sometimes called "Simple Cross-Legged Pose," Sukhasana (soo-KAHS-uh-nuh) strengthens the back and stretches the knees and ankles. Sitting upright with your spine aligned reduces stress and anxiety. This position is a very common pose for practicing meditation and pranayama.
- Sit on the edge of a firm blanket, crossing your legs in front of you at the shins. If your hips are very tight, you can sit up on a bolster or block.
- Balance your weight evenly across your sit bones. Align your head, neck, and spine.
- Lengthen your spine but soften your neck. Relax your feet and thighs.
- Hold for up to a minute, or for the duration of your meditation or pranayama practice. Release and change the cross of your legs.
Stress Relief: Bridge Pose
This chest and neck opening pose helps to reduce stress and anxiety. It calms the mind, and is known to be therapeutic for individuals with high blood pressure. Do not perform this pose if you have a neck injury.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
- Press your feet and arms into the floor as you lift your hips toward the ceiling.
- Keep your thighs and feet parallel — do not roll to the outer edges of your feet or let your knees drop together. Roll your shoulders back and underneath your body. Clasp your hands and extend your arms along the floor beneath your pelvis.
- Hold for up to one minute, then exhale and release by slowly rolling the spine along the floor, vertebra by vertebra.
If you’re having trouble keeping your hips lifted, place a block or bolster under the sacrum — the spot at your lower back directly above your tailbone — to support your pelvis. This is also a good modification if you’d like to make the pose restorative, rather than active.
Deep Relaxation: Corpse Pose
The final relaxation pose, Savasana (shah-VAHS-uh-nuh) takes your yoga practice to a place where you can completely let go. Sometimes used to begin practice, the pose is more commonly used to end practice to allow your body to fully relax and restore itself. Let lingering thoughts and worries fade away. From the depth and darkness of Savasana, you can be rejuvenated, refreshed, and reborn.
- Lie on your back and close your eyes. You may want to cover your body with a blanket.
- Allow your body to feel heavy on the ground. Let your legs and arms drop open.
- Working from the soles of your feet up to the crown of your head, release each body part, every organ, and every cell. Let your eyes close. Invite deep peace and silence into your mind, body, and soul.
- Stay in Savasana for 5 to 15 minutes. Then deepen your breath, bringing gentle movement and awareness back to your body. Roll to your right side. With an inhalation, gently press yourself into a comfortable seated position. Take this peace you've created with you throughout the rest of your day.
Balance it Out
Yoga isn’t a miracle cure, but it can help you find balance within the stresses of everyday life. Take these tips to heart, but also talk with your instructor before class about your state of health and well-being. He or she may recommend specific relaxation techniques to keep you on an even keel when times are tough. With practice, the benefits of yoga will extend to all areas of your life.