People who regularly practice yoga have a significantly lower risk of having episodes of atrial fibrillation - abnormal heart rhythm (irregular heartbeat) caused by unusual generation of electrical signals in the heart. Atrial fibrillation is a major cause of stroke among elderly individuals.

In this US study carried out at the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, not only did researchers report a reduced risk of irregular heartbeat, but also a reduction of anxiety and depression symptoms among those who practice yoga frequently.

Study leader, Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, who presented the research findings at the American College of Cardiology Annual Meeting in New Orleans, said:

"These findings are important because many of the current conventional treatment strategies for atrial fibrillation include invasive procedures or medications with undesirable side effects."

This small study consisted of 49 participants, all with atrial fibrillation. None of them had any physical limitations and had never done yoga before. Hospital scientists monitored their heart rhythms regularly over a period of six months.

During the first half of the six-month period, they were allowed to choose any physical activity, while for the second three months they all took part in a supervised yoga program with a certified professional. The program included relaxation, postures, meditation and practicing breathing techniques.

All 49 participants had three yoga sessions per week. The instructor taught and encouraged them to do some yoga on their own at home on the other days.

Monitoring over the six-month period included regular heartbeat measurements, questionnaires asking them about their levels of depression, anxiety and general quality of life.

Dr. Lakkireddy and team found that regular yoga reduced their episodes of atrial fibrillation by approximately 50%. Symptoms of anxiety and depression were also significantly reduced, while general health, vigor, social functioning and over mental health benefited considerably.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Our hearts have four chambers - two upper ones called the left atrium and the right atrium (plural: atria), and two lower ones called the left ventricle and the right ventricle. During an episode of atrial fibrillation the atria are not synchronized with the contractions of the two ventricles. The heart, in effect, beats too rapidly and irregularly and ineffectively, resulting in poor blood flow to the body. Blood starts to accumulate in the atria, the risk of clots forming increases, these clots can travel to the brain, causing strokes.

About 7 million people are thought to be affected by atrial fibrillation in Europe and the USA alone. Over the next four decades experts believe this figure will double.

Yoga could be a low cost general treatment

Not only is yoga low cost, it appears to be beneficial for individuals who have episodes of atrial fibrillation. The researchers believe yoga should be seriously considered as part of overall treatment for patients with all types of heart rhythm problems.

However, Lakkireddy explained that with only 49 participants, theirs was a small study. Larger ones will be needed to confirm their findings.

Lakkireddy added:

"Based on my findings, one should not tell patients that yoga will fix everything and they can stop taking their anticoagulants. Yoga is strictly a supplement for everything else they are doing medically."

A team of researchers from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wrote in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health that yoga improves cognitive performance more than aerobic exercises do.

Written by Christian Nordqvist