Yoga and cardio: Can you really change your genetic destiny?

In January my friend Louise, a writing teacher, environmental activist, and yoga practitioner, had a small heart attack. Around the same time, I heard that one of Canada’s senior-most Iyengar yoga teachers had an aortic dissection. It struck me that two females and lifelong yogis, have heart disease.

It made me wonder about the value of aerobic exercise, also called “cardio” and touted to prevent heart trouble.

Do you do cardio?

Casual yoga students typically do other sporty activities, such as running, swimming, and cycling. In fact, they often view asana as complementary to their main sport. But what about serious yogis who practice two or three hours daily? If yoga is your first priority, do you also make time for sweaty, heart-pumping exercise? No matter how strenuous a yoga sequence after all, it’s unlikely to bring on your target heart rate.

Does it matter?

When I first met Louise, suntanned, lanky, and lean as a greyhound, dressed in rustic flowing skirts and Birkenstocks, she looked 100% Berkeley, if you know what I mean. In her early 70s, she’s always watched her diet, walked long distances, done qigong and yoga, and lived healthfully. But heart disease runs in her family. She wrote to her email list:

I guess the one thing I could not transform is ancestry; now I realize that both grandfathers, my dad and five uncles all had heart disease. My youngest uncle, still very active at 89 with a stent and double by-pass surgery behind him—called when he heard the news—welcoming me to “the family tradition.”

Medical experts acknowledge that lifestyle habits, including cardio, make a difference only to a point. Those who eat Big Macs, smoke cigarettes, and drive everywhere would certainly benefit from a lifestyle overhaul. But in Louise’s case, more exercise probably wouldn’t have overridden her genetic predisposition for heart disease.

Does it matter that it might not matter?

Before I discovered yoga, I “worked out.” I’ve gone through phases of running the Berkeley Fire Trail,  doing the Stairmaster, swimming laps, lifting weights at the gym. (Nowadays yoga monopolizes my time, so I just do cardio machines and walk everywhere. I have high hopes for the top elliptical of 2017, I can’t wait to try it.)

I like to work out. I like the rise and fall in heart rate and body  temperature. I like the way my breathing automatically finds a rhythm. A workout (and a good asana sequence) has an arc from beginning to end, like a Bell curve. Maybe that’s why I found Bikram yoga strange: To enter a 105°F room and immediately sweat?

A good workout can be solace, escape, solitude. Way back when, a guy I knew called his workouts “penance.” I suspect that many people need a visceral physical outlet to feel satisfyingly transformed. Maybe that’s why asana typically resonates with people first, before pranayama or meditation or reading philosophy. Likewise, maybe that’s why a challenging asana session is so exhilarating. By experiencing physical catharsis, people feel ready for and worthy of more-profound transformation.

Four months after her heart attack, Louise found healing in exercise:

The greatest healing tool for me, though, is rigorous daily walking and a little work with weights. Though thinking of myself as “athletic” all my life, my actual exercise has been more and more intermittent. Now I often feel like I did in my 20s when I was ski-racing or mountaineering on the weekends and walking all over Berkeley with ease during the week. Intensional [sic] working out strengthens and clears the arteries and I’ve started to create some visualizations to help it happen.

Who knows how much we can alter our genetic destiny, but it can’t hurt to try.

Image: Asics GT 2160 (my current shoe); Kitsilano Pool, Vancouver, BC (Canada’s longest pool, 137 meters/150 yards)

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6 thoughts on “Yoga and cardio: Can you really change your genetic destiny?

  1. this is very interesting!
    I’ve thought about this regarding my eco-changes I’ve made in my lifestyle… what if I still get cancer, or some other disease? There is only so much we can do, and living in a society where self-blame is the constant, it’s hard to let that go. I feel there’s a balance to be had in self-responsibility while still accepting that some things are beyond our control. (Five Seed’s recent posts on self-love touch on this as well).
    Very thought provoking and very true!
    I gotta say though, I find yoga increases my heart rate- but perhaps it’s not as high as is recommended (I should click that link you added in your post!).

  2. I just finished reading The Science of Yoga by William J. Broad and heart rate/aerobic activity and yoga is addressed in the book. I’d cite where but I already returned the book to the library.

    The simple answer was no, yoga does not increase our heart rate enough to qualify as an aerobic activity. The more complex answer was yes…initially, for those of use who do practice a vinyasa flow style. Then after a while, the newness tapers off and we don’t derive the aerobic benefits we would get from a power walk, run, cycle, etc. Yoga never really hits that heart thumping exertion one derives from a good run, a hill climb on a bike or a three mile walk.

    I DO crosstrain. I feel that the integration of yoga, cycling and aerobic/weights is important to my long-term wellness. Cycling is great aerobically, but doesn’t provide the bone building exercise I need. The aerobic class (corepole, actually, aerobic resistance training) does. Yoga provides the mental calmness my A-type personality craves but doesn’t want to admit to needing and the stretching to keep everything limber.

    I agree, while we may not be able to completely alter our genetic desitiny, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try. Perhaps it will lead to a better quality of life and more positive outlook while coping with what we inherited.

  3. Great post Yoga Spy. As an Iyengar teacher myself, I find that a cardio workout and weights are a great way to fitness; they compliment the yoga. Currently I take 3 spin classes a week and they’ve been a boon to my overall health and fitness.

  4. If you let “destiny” scare you, then you’re not practicing the yamas and niyamas, nevermind dharana or samaddhi, so please re-evaluate and reconsider whether you are actually practicing yoga.

    BTW, what would BKS Iyegar say about “aerobics”? Pattabhi Jois?

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