Hot Vinyasa May Not Be the Best Yoga for Heart Health

By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | March 15, 2024

COMMENTS

A black woman with short hair sitting in a meditation position with both of her hands over her heart.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years students have told me things like: “I love what you do, it’s so relaxing, but…I really need stronger exercise. So can you speed things up a bit?” or “I don’t have time to come to your class because I need to work out more” or “Your class is nice once in a while, but I do vinyasa three times a week to get my exercise in.”

Since 1969 and the publication of Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s groundbreaking book, Aerobics, we’ve been bombarded by messages emphasizing the importance of sweat for cardiovascular benefit. There’s no dispute here – exercise is clearly good for your heart.

an illustration of a human chest showing ribs and the heart

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But yoga, even hot yoga or fast vinyasa, might not be the best place to get that exercise. A few small studies have shown some benefits of hot yoga on aerobic capacity – it seems to be akin to brisk walking at 3.5 mph. (Borbeau et al., 2021) And if you love hot yoga, that’s great. Everyone needs to do their own thing.

All I’m saying is that the research suggests that yoga (even the faster styles) is not a great substitute for traditional cardio training.

Here’s something else to consider – while aerobic exercise, in the form of hot, fast yoga or running, swimming, tennis etc., is helpful for your heart, it’s not the complete picture. Aerobics is not the only thing that your heart needs to stay healthy. The heart also needs to be trained in the other direction. It needs to learn to slow down. And one of the best ways to train the heart to slow down is regular prāṇāyāma practice.

A black woman with short hair sitting in a meditation position with both of her hands over her heart.

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Several studies have shown that slow, deep breathing reduces stress, improves autonomic balance, lowers blood pressure, and may help to manage hypertension, potentially because of its positive impact on the tone of the autonomic nervous system. (Nivethitha et al., 2016; Mason et al., 2013)

Patanjali also recommends slowing down the breath. In Yoga Sutra 1.34 he writes:

Pracchardanavidhāraṇābhyāṁ vā prāṇasya

Here he’s saying that one of the ways you can stabilize your mind is by “retaining prana.” In other words, by keeping the lifeforce energy in your system longer. You can retain prana, and increase your capacity to retain prana, by regularly practicing prāṇāyāma that helps you lengthen your exhale. Because when you exhale slowly, the prana stays in the system longer. Just to be clear, he’s not talking about breath holding here.

Prana and breath are not the same thing, but the prana really likes to ride along on the breath, particularly when your mind is peaceful and clear. So practicing prāṇāyāma with a peaceful mind is especially helpful – and it’s a feedback loop. The more you practice, the calmer the mind becomes – the calmer the mind is, the more effective your practice.

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Patanjali also discusses prāṇāyāma in the second chapter. Specifically, in Sutra 2.50, he says that the breath in prāṇāyāma should be dīrghasūkṣmaḥ – which means slow and subtle. So any breathing technique that is not slow and subtle, like bhastrikā or kapālabhāti, are technically not prāṇāyāma, they are kriya, which can be great for building heat and helping to eliminate toxins, but that’s a different purpose.

Breathing slowly is good for your health, even for your cardiovascular health – which doesn’t mean that breathing fast is bad for your health. I’m trying to tease out the distinct benefits of slow breathing here, not trash exercise. Both are necessary, but the practice of slowing down the breath is just not as well-known, as popular, or as valued in our culture. 

Patanjali understood the benefits of long slow breathing on the mind, but research is helping us understand that there are also important benefits for the heart.

If you are a yoga teacher who’s heard similar complaints – that your classes aren’t hard enough to provide cardio benefits – I think it’s worth spending some time teaching students that the time they spend with you is just as important as any other exercise program that they regularly engage in. Your classes provide important, different cardiovascular benefits. If you add prāṇāyāma that teaches people how to gradually lengthen their exhales, even better.

You’re not teaching a watered-down version of “real yoga” (I’ve heard that complaint too). Rather, you’re teaching the good stuff, the rare stuff, the stuff that they generally aren’t going to learn anywhere else.

Please check out my free ebook, 5 Ways Yogic Meditation Changes Your Brain. 

References:

  • Bourbeau KC, Moriarty TA, Bellovary BN, Bellissimo GF, Ducharme JB, Haeny TJ, Zuhl MN. Cardiovascular, Cellular, and Neural Adaptations to Hot Yoga versus Normal-Temperature Yoga. Int J Yoga. 2021 May-Aug;14(2):115-126. doi: 10.4103/ijoy.IJOY_134_20. Epub 2021 May 10. PMID: 34188383; PMCID: PMC8191229.
  • Mason H, Vandoni M, Debarbieri G, Codrons E, Ugargol V, Bernardi L. Cardiovascular and respiratory effect of yogic slow breathing in the yoga beginner: what is the best approach? Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:743504. doi: 10.1155/2013/743504. Epub 2013 Apr 23. PMID: 23710236; PMCID: PMC3655580.
  • Nivethitha L, Mooventhan A, Manjunath NK. Effects of Various Prāṇāyāma on Cardiovascular and Autonomic Variables. Anc Sci Life. 2016 Oct-Dec;36(2):72-77. doi: 10.4103/asl.ASL_178_16. PMID: 28446827; PMCID: PMC5382821.

 

 

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