Research has shown that yoga is good for the prevention of heart disease by improving risk factors like cholesterol, glucose levels and others. However, very few studies have investigated the effects of the yoga on the arteries. Often not at the center of the discussion around cardiovascular disease is the health of the arteries, which are critical tubes responsible for delivering oxygen, nutrients and hormones to the organs and tissues in need, regulating blood pressure and maintaining heart health. Arteries secrete an important molecule, nitric oxide, which causes the blood vessels to dilate, but also prevents the development and advancement of atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque on the interior sufaces of the vessels leading to compromised or inhibited function.
Yoga promotes healthy arteries is the take home message from the recent publication of a study my team of researchers and I conducted at the University of Texas. Appearing in the Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies, “The Effects of Bikram Yoga on Endothelial Function in Young and Middle-Aged and Older Adults” is the first to show that just 8 weeks of Bikram yoga can significantly enhance the function of endothelial cells, small cells which line the insides of the arteries that are key in the regulation of heart health. All participants were healthy with no preexisting conditions with results showing improvements in vascular function only in the older age group with a consistent practice of 3 times weekly.
Given that vascular function tends to decline with age, these promising findings indicate that some of this decline can be reversed with regular yoga practice. Distinguishing Bikram yoga from many other yoga styles is the heated studio environment consistently employed worldwide. Studies have shown that even passive heating (in the absence of any activity) improves vascular function. Thus, it is still unclear how much if any of the positive effects demonstrated in this study were due to the heat and/or the practice itself. This is the question we are attempting to answer with a follow-up study at UT, the Bikram Yoga Heart Study, a Pure Action supported comparison study of a heated versus a non-heated practice environment. Results will be available this fall.