Boost Heart Health With Yoga

Yogis know the poses that “open” the heart, but did you know that regular practice can also help protect your ticker over the long term?

In honor of National Wear Red Day, the American Heart Association’s campaign to raise awareness of heart disease (the#1 killer of women), here are 5 ways that yoga keeps your heart going strong.

And don’t forget to wear red yoga pants on Friday to spread the word!

1. Love how you feel after class? That’s your stress melting away.

Stress may affect behaviors and factors that are proven to increase heart disease risk: high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating, according to the American Heart Association. Chronic stress may also cause some people to drink too much alcohol, which can increase your blood pressure and may damage the artery walls. A regular yoga practice, on the other hand, is likely to calm you down, making you less likely to lean on caffeine, sugar, fatty foods or alcohol to “numb out,” says Hazel Patterson, Urban Zen Integrative Yoga Therapist and teacher trainer at YogaWorks in Los Angeles.

“Moving with the breath, in other words linking expanding movements with the inhales, and contracting or softening movements with the exhales, starts to create a dynamic which calms the nerves and moves that stress energy out of the body,” she explains.

For your go-to bliss-out pose, Terrence Monte, a Managing Teacher at Pure Yoga in New York City, recommends the Seated Forward Bend. To make it even more delicious, place a rolled blanket or towel under your knees, and rest your forehead on a block or other prop placed on your shins.

2. It’s a feel-good workout.

Maintaining a normal BMI (body mass index) can help your heart, according to the CDC, and regular physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight. Yoga, Monte says, is the “best resistance workout on the planet” —meaning it’s easy on the joints and uses your own body weight to build strength. Become a fat-burning machine by building long lean muscle—Monte suggests Plank Pose as all-over strengthener that does double-duty by targeting your core and shoring up your back.

3. It blasts belly fat.

Excess abdominal fat has been linked to increased risk for heart disease. By strengthening the large muscle groups in the body, such as the gluteals and quadriceps, yoga gets your body burning more calories, meaning you are less likely to store them as fat around your middle, Patterson says. “Standing poses like Warrior II held for a little longer than the mind is comfortable with is a great way to build these powerhouse muscles,” she says.

4. It “opens” the heart.

What does it mean to “open” your heart mean anyway? “Asana is the practice of putting your body in challenging shapes. Yoga, on the other hand, is the practice of integrating what you learn on the mat with what you do off of it,” Monte explains. “As you become more mindful about your body, your breath, your language in challenging poses, you become more aware about your own perceptions (read: misperceptions) of the world.”

Rather than the obvious heart-openers (Fish, Camel, Locust ), Monte suggests a pose that’s really challenging to stay vulnerable in, like Chair Pose. “Sit as low as you can with your lumbar spine as long as possible for as long as you can. Notice how your mind, your language, your perceptions change as the intensity increases,” he says.

5. It changes your diet.

A healthy diet (heavy on colorful fruits and veggies, fiber and heart-healthy fish and light on red meat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar and processed foods) is critical to heart health, and studies have linked regular yoga practice to mindful eating.

“As you connect to your body, breath and perspectives in challenging shapes on the mat, you connect more to what you do to it off the mat,” Monte says. “Suddenly, if you have to do yoga in the morning, it gets much harder to have that fourth martini, that fried whatever, that extra serving of needless sugar. You develop a sense of respect for this absurdly miraculous body that has developed over millions of years of evolution.”


Article originally appeared on The Yoga Journal.

Are Trigger Points Affecting Your Athletic Performance?

Trigger points cause real problems for athletes.

Not only are trigger points exquisitely painful, but they also affect movement. Trigger points inhibit range of motion by keeping muscles short and stiff. They also weaken muscles, causing them to tire quickly and recover slowly. They produce excessive muscle contraction that can partially disarticulate joints or cause nerve entrapment.

That’s the bad news: Trigger points can seriously inhibit athletic performance. The good news? Acupuncture can help. So can self-care (see tips at the end of this article!).

How does a trigger point form?

A trigger point is a hyper-irritable muscle band with a predictable pattern of pain referral. It forms when the process of muscle contraction and release goes awry.

Muscle overload or trauma causes the muscle band to contract too strongly. Such excessive contracture increases metabolic demand and also squeezes shut the network of capillaries supplying the nutrition and oxygen to the region.

This results in a local energy crisis, perpetuating the cycle of contracture. The muscle band cannot release and a trigger point forms.

Can stretching relieve trigger points?

A muscle harboring a trigger point will be too painful to stretch fully. The pain (and subsequent inhibitory reflex) will prevent you from sufficiently lengthening the muscle band.

What’s more, forcing a stretch will often result in injury (muscle strain) and do nothing to resolve the trigger point.

Think of a trigger point like a knot in a rubber band. Stretching the band will cause it to snap, but it will not release the knot. To restore full stretch to that rubber band, you first need to unwind the knot.

Acupuncture is the most effective way to release trigger points

The acupuncture needle provides a mechanical disruption to the trigger point. It halts the vicious cycle of energy crisis in the muscle. Restored to its full length, the muscle recovers its normal blood supply and metabolism, and it can function fully.

You might be wondering, does having acupuncture on trigger points hurt?

Many release techniques require direct pressure to the trigger point, which is by definition painful. Often a trigger point is too irritable to tolerate much additional mechanical stimulation. But a needle can reach the depth of the trigger point without irritating the hyper-sensitive tissues above or around it. There is simply no other technique that can boast such precision.

And acupuncture achieves immediate results. A single well-placed needle into a trigger point will elicit a twitch followed by reduced muscular tension and increased range of motion. Such immediate feedback is immensely satisfying for someone who has been dealing with pain and dysfunction in that muscle for weeks, months, or even years.

3 self-care tips for preventing trigger points

Increase training loads slowly

Trigger points form due to persistent muscular contraction, strain, or overuse. To prevent their formation, don’t do too much too soon—and make sure you have adequate recovery between workouts. Get enough quality sleep to ensure your body can repair itself efficiently.

Maintain range of motion and muscle balance

This requires some work. Regularly take your body through the opposite range of motion you use in your sport. A good rule of thumb is to lengthen the agonist, and strengthen the antagonist.

For cyclists who spend hours in the saddle with forward shoulder posture, this means increasing range of motion in your pectorals, and strengthening the rhomboids and other muscles of the upper back. Runners typically benefit from lengthening the hip flexors (psoas and quadriceps) and strengthening the hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings).

Break up adhesions

You need to be doing something on a regular basis to normalize tight, overworked muscle tissue.

Supple, flexible muscles don’t get injured. Using a lacrosse ball, a foam roller, or even your fingers, apply direct pressure to a tight muscle band for 8-12 seconds. Taking the muscle through its range of motion while compressing it will break up adhesions before a trigger point forms.

This article originally appeared on Acutake and was written by Ginna Ellis.

Ease Sore Muscles and Improve Blood Flow with Massage

Massage therapy can help ease sore muscles and improve blood flow for people who are active as well as for those who do not exercise, a small study finds.

Those effects can last for more than 72 hours, researchers found. People with poor circulation or limited ability to move are among those who could benefit most from massage therapy, they noted.

“Our study validates the value of massage in exercise and injury, which has been previously recognized but based on minimal data,” Nina Cherie Franklin, study first author and a postdoctoral fellow in physical therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said in a university news release. “It also suggests the value of massage outside of the context of exercise.”

In the study, the researchers asked 36 healthy but inactive young adults to use a leg press machine until their legs became sore. Half of the participants were given a Swedish leg massage after they exercised. All of the participants rated their muscle soreness on a scale from one to 10. A third comparison group did not exercise, but got a massage.

Although both exercise groups were sore right after their workout, the people who got the massage said they had no soreness 90 minutes later. In contrast, those in the group that didn’t receive a massage said they were sore 24 hours after they exercised.

Because muscle injury from exercise has been shown to reduce blood flow, researchers say, they also measured the participants’ “brachial artery flow mediated dilation” in their arms. This standard measure of general vascular health was taken 90 minutes as well as one, two and three days after exercise.

The people who got a massage after they exercised had improved blood flow at every testing interval and the benefits of the massage didn’t dissipate until after 72 hours had passed, researchers found. People who did not receive a massage after exercise had reduced blood flow after 90 minutes and returned to normal levels at 72 hours.

“We believe that massage is really changing physiology in a positive way,” Franklin said. “This is not just blood flow speeds — this is actually a vascular response.”

And massage doesn’t just help people who exercise, the researchers also found.

“The big surprise was the massage-only control group, who showed virtually identical levels of improvement in circulation as the exercise and massage group,” study principal investigator Shane Phillips, an associate professor of physical therapy at UIC, said in the news release. “The circulatory response was sustained for a number of days, which suggests that massage may be protective.”

The study found that participants’ blood flow was changed far away from the sore muscles. Researchers concluded that massage benefits are systemic and not confined to one specific area of the body.

While the study found an association between massage and improved circulation, it did not establish a cause-and-effect relationship.

The study was recently published online ahead of publication in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.