Epiphanies occur in the strangest places.
For one Miami attorney, it happened during a traffic jam on the way to an important meeting. Instead of fuming over the futility of his situation, he pulled off the road and began a mindful breathing exercise. Five minutes later, he got back into traffic, a calmer, healthier person.
A year earlier, this might have been out of character for the 61-year-old attorney, but one heart attack and several yoga classes later, he discovered a simple yet profound way to quiet his body and mind. In the process, his bad cholesterol dropped from 130 to 48, along with seven excess pounds.
His is one of many yoga success stories from patients at the Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program at the University of Miami Health System. Program participants learn physical therapy exercises, Pilates, mindful breathing, meditation, and are encouraged to participate in yoga classes at UHealth or other locations in South Florida.
When you have maximized everything you can do medically, integrative therapies like yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises accomplish things regular medicine cannot. The more challenging the patient, the more they benefit from yoga,” says Dr. Claudia Martinez Bermudez, a clinical and interventional cardiologist with the health system.
The numbers don’t lie
Dr. Martinez Bermudez realized this after her father’s cardiovascular health changed. “His blood pressure and cholesterol weren’t lowering, even with medication. One year after he began meditating and breathing exercises, his exercise capacity, blood pressure, and cholesterol numbers were normal for the first time in his life.”
Dr. Sabine Gempel, the program’s physical therapist, concurs. “I’ve seen heart patients drop 40 pounds in less than four months after starting yoga in combination with cardiac rehab. Their cholesterol also drops, allowing many to reduce or eliminate medication.”
The yoga effect
The stretching, strengthening, breathing, and meditation involved in yoga have a powerful healing effect on the body. According to Dr. Gempel, holding different yoga poses requires a mindfulness that relaxes the body’s “fight or flight” response — the same response that restricts blood vessels, increases heart rate and the risk of blood clots. Research backs this up and other studies demonstrate yoga’s ability to significantly increase cardiovascular and lung function.
To prove this point, Dr. Martinez Bermudez checks each patient’s blood pressure when they arrive at her office, when it is still elevated. She then asks them to take several deep breaths. “When I take their blood pressure again, 99 percent of the time, it has dropped. That’s how I convince them of the importance of deep breathing. Along with meditation, this overlaps in a positive way to help lower stress hormones, which in addition to lowering blood pressure, also decreases arrhythmia.”
Dr. Gempel cites several patients from 35 to 74 years old, whose cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight dropped after starting yoga in conjunction with cardiac rehabilitation. As they feel better, many also give up alcohol or adopt a plant-based diet.
Saying yes to yoga
Dr. Martinez Bermudez and Dr. Gempel encourage heart patients interested in yoga and cardiac rehabilitation to start a conversation with their doctor. According to Dr. Gempel, many patients aren’t aware that cardiac rehabilitation exists. “Nationally, the average referral rate is only 25 percent. It is so underutilized, though there is evidence that rehabilitation causes a 25 percent decrease in all-cause mortality.”
One of the first things Dr. Gempel teaches patients is the four pillars of rehabilitation:
- Smoking cessation
- Eating a whole foods, plant-based diet
- Stress management
Yoga accomplishes the exercise and stress management pillars. As patients feel better, they often pursue the other pillars. If considering yoga, Dr. Gempel recommends that patients discuss their health and yoga experience level with a certified instructor before taking a class.
“All styles of yoga are beneficial and can be made easier or harder to perform, but depending on your situation, some styles might be more appropriate. For example, chair yoga is a good option if you have poor balance. Bikram and ‘hot’ yoga can reduce your blood pressure as you sweat, so patients with low blood pressure should be cautious and stay hydrated. If you have had heart failure or an abdominal aortic aneurysm, avoid inversion poses because they increase blood flow back to the heart,” says Dr. Gempel.
Physical benefits aside, the psychosocial support found in yoga classes can alleviate depression, a common ailment among heart patients. “As patients exercise, they feel better, and their whole psychology changes,” says Dr. Martinez Bermudez. That simple yet profound change makes it easier to deal with whatever life presents – from health issues to traffic jams.
To learn more about UHealth’s Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program, call 305-689-1141.
Nancy Moreland is a contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her articles also appear in the Chicago Tribune.