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Yoga for a healthy heart

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It's February, and our thoughts turn to the lub-dub of our beating hearts. Yes, we love how a reputedly cold and dreary month can be brightened by the simple plea of "Be My Valentine"! It's also American Heart Month, a time when lots of important attention is placed on heart health, and ways to keep heart disease, America's leading cause of death, at bay.

We all know a healthy diet and regular exercise are key to maintaining heart health. It's worth being mindful, too, of the negative impact chronic stress can have on the best of nutrition and training regimens. In an article for Yoga Journal, Dean Ornish, MD, says stress can cause plaque to build up in coronary arteries. It also causes those arteries to constrict, increasing risk of clots and heart attacks.

Luckily, there are lots of ways we can proactively manage stress in our lives, and highly enjoyable ones that simultaneously boost fitness at that. Yoga, for example, which incorporates a strong focus on breathing and meditation, is designed to bring about increased physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Studies show yoga practice can lower blood pressure, improve lung capacity, improve respiratory function, circulation and mood, and boost muscle tone. Yoga further encourages community, relieving causes of stress like loneliness and depression rooted in feelings of isolation.

"I've seen a range of visible health benefits with my students," says Julia McGarey, a yoga instructor at The Family Garden in Longmont and founder of Alouatta Yoga in Boulder. "I've had students who turned to yoga to manage severe back pain, prenatal students who attended three yoga classes a week and experienced a problem-free pregnancy, and kids whose parents brought them to yoga because it was the only thing that seemed to help with their digestive problems. I've seen increased strength, flexibility, and balance in many students. I've seen high school and middle school students develop better posture and more confidence. Obviously yoga isn't the only factor; if you're looking for it to cure all of your health problems in the first session, you will probably be disappointed. The effects of yoga build up over time and they are different for every person, but I believe that if you ask someone who has practiced yoga consistently for several months, he or she will have a unique story of how yoga has helped build health."

There are various styles of yoga for all abilities, and classes geared for all ages. Some of the most wondrous growth McGarey recounts has come from toddler yoga. "In toddler yoga we have a routine. The grown-ups in the room are always modeling. One particular little boy was captivated early on by the breathing ball at the end of class. It drew him in; it's amazing to see kids as young as 19 months old taking deep breaths with total awareness! That boy is now 21 months old, and he is with us the whole time. He comes and sits on his mat, participates in all of our songs, and tries out all the poses. His mom told me that they use a breathing ball at home when he gets upset, and it really helps him calm down. What a powerful tool to have by age two!"

Longmont is home to numerous great yoga resources, including The Family Garden, Full Circle Yoga, and Longmont Parks & Rec. McGarey recommends putting in a little research to find your best fit. For beginners, she advises choosing a studio that offers classes specifically geared to newbies. "All levels classes can be okay, but they often assume some experience with yoga. I would avoid taking a power or hot yoga class if it's your first ever experience, especially if you feel at all nervous or intimidated. I think it's best to ease into those classes. If you don't know which class to choose, check out teacher bios. Choose someone you feel like you would connect with and take a class or two from them."

One great benefit from participating in a yoga class, you'll learn takeaway strategies to manage stress on your own. For instance, McGarey recommends daily breath work to promote relaxation. Find what works best for you!

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