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.
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.