High blood pressure – what doctors call hypertension – affects one in three adults in the United States. Elevated blood pressure, which increases the risk of stroke, heart failure, and kidney disease, is often described as a “silent killer.” Recognizable symptoms do exist – fatigue, nosebleeds, nervous tension, ringing in the ears, dizziness, bursts of anger, headaches – but not generally until blood pressure is dangerously high.
Stress as the culprit
Blood pressure – the force blood exerts against the walls of your arteries as it travels through the circulatory system – fluctuates during the day, increasing during exertion or stress and decreasing when the body is at rest. Most doctors agree that a blood pressure reading of less than 120/80 is ideal for adults, and diagnose hypertension when those numbers reach 140/90. The top number (the systolic pressure) refers to the amount of pressure in the arteries when the heart beats or contracts. The bottom number measures the diastolic pressure, or how much pressure remains in the arteries between beats when the heart is relaxed.
Although several conditions can cause secondary high blood pressure (kidney disease, hormone abnormalities, type 2 diabetes), more often than not a high-stress lifestyle can lead to what doctors call “essential” hypertension, where there is no disease-specific cause.
Yoga, when performed mindfully, can reduce this type of stress-induced hypertension while addressing its underlying causes. It pacifies the sympathetic nervous system and slows down the heart while teaching the muscles and mind to relax deeply.
Pranayama can also be extremely beneficial. Research studies demonstrate that conscious breathing quickly lowers blood pressure. Practising pranayama while lying down encourages the breath to arise smoothly from a relaxed state, without any force. If you do choose to sit, keep your spine straight and lift your chest, while keeping your head down in jalandhara bandha, so that there is no strain on the heart.
While a general yoga practice has a pacifying effect and can bring the nervous system into balance, some asanas work better than others for actually lowering blood pressure – and simple modifications make others more beneficial. For example, do cooling poses, such as forward bends where the head is supported – to bring a sense of calm to the head, neck, face, and diaphragm. Modify any standing poses in which the arms are normally extended overhead (like virabhadrasana I) by placing your hands on your hips. In trikonasana (triangle pose), look down toward the floor instead of up at the ceiling to keep blood pressure from rising. Steer clear of poses that compress the front of the diaphragm, such as dhanurasana(bow pose) and mayurasana (peacock pose), which can drive blood pressure up.
Anyone with untreated high blood pressure should avoid unsupported inversions, such as shirshasana (headstand pose) or adho mukha vrikshasana (handstand pose) – or any other pose in which they can feel pressure in the throat or temples, or that cause respiration to become heavy or difficult.
Practising a modified halasana (plough pose) is a good way to experience the benefits of inversions without the potentially harmful effects because you can learn to bear weight on the upper body and lengthen the sides of the neck without any strain. So if your blood pressure reads on the high side, stick to the modified version below.
Forward bends and other introverted asanas teach us how to quiet the brain and lengthen and soften the neck along the path of the carotid artery. When doing these poses to lower blood pressure, support the head, which has a cooling, calming effect on the whole body.