"Heart rhythm in the body is controlled by communication between the heart and the brain," says Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, MD. His study on yoga and AFib is published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Yoga, he says, has a calming influence that can help prevent the speeding up or slowing down of the heartbeat that's common if you have atrial fibrillation.
Before you hit the mats, choose the type of yoga that's right for you. Andrew Tanner, chief ambassador of the Yoga Alliance and an instructor for 13 years, cautions those with heart conditions to stay away from strenuous ones like hot yoga and power yoga.
"Some yoga is not relaxing at all," he says. "You should look instead into gentle yoga."
You might start with the Iyengar or hatha types. They focus on body alignment and balance through meditation and breath control exercises that are in sync with your movements. But if these don't help, check out other styles that might be better for you.
If you have AFib, Tanner suggests three breathing exercises, or pranayama. You can practice these on your own.
Ocean-sounding breath (Ujjayi). This will help slow down and control your breathing. Place your tongue behind your top teeth. Slightly tighten your throat muscles to slow the flow of air as much as possible while you breathe in and breathe out through your nose. You should hear it as it passes through.
Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhanaor). Think of this as a way to reset your breath. Follow these steps:
- Put your right thumb on your right nostril to block air as you breathe in through the left.
- Then block the left nostril with your right ring finger as you remove your thumb and breathe out through the right nostril.
- Keep the left closed while you breathe in through the right.
- Close the right and exhale left.
- Do 10 to 12 sets of two.
"It gives the mind something to do while you're breathing," Tanner says.
Three-part breathing (dirgha pranayama). Slow down your breathing like you do in the ujjayi method, and then focus on the three parts of your torso. You'll feel your lower belly pull in, and then the chest, rib-cage, and the top by your collarbone expand.
"It's essentially massaging your entire torso," Tanner says.
Strike a Pose
When you feel ready, you can try some of the more physical parts of yoga. It will take some time and consistent practice to get the benefits. Lakkireddy says people in his study showed improvement after 3 months of yoga at least twice a week.
But Tanner warns that many poses can be too strenuous and risky if you have a heart condition. Talk to your doctor first, and always practice yoga with an experienced and certified instructor.
If your doctor gives you the OK, try these two easy postures you can do at home.
Cat and Cow. Follow these steps:
- Get on all fours with your hands directly beneath your shoulders and knees directly beneath your hips, toes curled under.
- Breathe in as you lift your head and arch your back like a cow's, belly swaying down.
- Then exhale, arching your back like a cat's, pulling your belly into your ribs, dropping your chin to your chest.
- Repeat 7 to 10 times.
Legs up the Wall. Here's how to do it:
- Lie down on your back.
- Walk your feet up the wall so that your legs are pressed against it.
- Hold the position for 2 to 5 minutes.
More Than Short-Term Relief
It can feel great when you're in the poses and practicing the breathing exercises. But it also improves your life in the long run.
"Yoga can certainly have long-term benefits for people with AFib," says David Meyerson, MD, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins.
"Anyone can do it -- it's not just for athletes," he says. "And it lessens anxiety, improves depression and blood pressure control. People who do yoga are less likely to be overeating and have better weight control." All those things help keep your AFib in check.
"Yoga seems to work well," Myerson says.