Flip-Flop vs. Tick-Tock

You’ve heard of having butterflies in your stomach, but what about a fish flopping around in your chest? That can be a little scary, says Teresa Perkins.

That’s how Perkins describes her heart condition called atrial fibrillation (also known as AFib). She says it’s basically when your body’s electric system or heart isn’t beating in the right pattern. Perkins has lived with irregular heart rhythms for almost eight years, and she just recently found an alternative solution to help treat the condition. It’s not a new diet or an innovative medical procedure or even a medication.

It’s yoga.

Perkins saw an ad in the paper for a study called Yoga My Heart at the University of Kansas Hospital that was looking for participants who suffered from atrial fibrillation. Perkins called right away. She qualified for the study that included regular yoga classes which was a first for the 59-year-old. Perkins was experiencing frequent heart episodes that felt like “heart hiccups” and left her light-headed and out of breath. She was ready for a remedy.

“I feel like yoga really helped me,” says Perkins. “It taught me to relax, breathe and stretch. It taught me to get into a state where I could relax.”

In collaboration with other health professionals, Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, MD initiated the Yoga My Heart study almost two years ago at the University of Kansas Hospital in order to track the effects of yoga on patients with cardiac arrhythmia or irregular heart rhythms. One of Lakkireddy’s patients questioned how the mind and body was related to her condition, and that got the doctor thinking. Lakkireddy grew up in India with a grandfather who practiced yoga regularly, and he had also tried it. He decided to work with his interested patient to see if yoga could improve her heart condition. After monitoring his patient before and after yoga sessions, Lakkireddy found an immediate connection.

“The heart episodes correlated extremely well with yoga regulating the heart flare-ups and episodes,” says Lakkireddy. “It was pretty consistent, and it just makes sense.”

Lakkireddy enrolled 50 participants in the Phase I study of Yoga My Heart. The study began with participant testing and heart monitoring. After that, participants attended weekly yoga sessions and received tools to practice yoga safely at home, thanks to yoga instructor Jennifer Parker. During the study, participants were continually monitored for heart episodes. The results of the study astounded Lakkireddy.

“We found a 40-percent reduction in episodes,” says Lakkireddy. “Participants were less symptomatic, and their quality of life improved. Their blood pressures were also better.”

Lakkireddy and his team are currently analyzing data from the Phase II study that is similar to Phase I, and they expect similar results. He praises the effects of yoga on moderating the mind and body connection and explains that yoga affects the brain, which is directly connected to the heart via the nervous system.

Thus, finding your inner peace may find its way to calm your rapidly beating heart.

Jennifer Parker is a yoga instructor who works with Lakkireddy to conduct yoga sessions for the Yoga My Heart studies. She has seen the effects of yoga in her own life and attributes the healing powers of yoga for helping with her strength, flexibility, mood, anxiety, depression and heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia. She is hopeful that yoga is expanding its reach to help people prevent and cure heart conditions similar to her own.

Intro To Yoga

Yoga instructor Jennifer Parker offers helpful advice for heart patients who may want to try yoga at home. She instructs all patients to talk to their doctor or healthcare professional before starting any sort of yoga regimen.

•  Assume yoga postures close to the floor with your head level or down.

•  Move slowly from pose to pose.

•  Take time to focus on your body’s alignment and how you feel from the inside out during a posture.

•  Do not put pressure on yourself to complete any difficult postures.

•  If already practicing yoga, talk to your instructors to determine how to modify moves for your condition and ensure that you are enrolled in a more safe form of yoga.

•  Use props such as a chair, strap, blankets or books to achieve postures and get into proper alignment. 

“People don’t use their bodies and breathing muscles like they should, and their muscles start to atrophy,” says Parker, who credits a sedentary lifestyle for a host of health issues.

According to Lakkireddy, atrial fibrillation affects an estimated 2.2 million Americans. The condition is frequently related to stress and can include symptoms of fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, chaotic heart palpitations and chest pains. It often affects people over the age of 65 who may have diabetes or sleep apnea. If untreated, atrial fibrillation can cause heart failure, a heart attack, stroke or other complications.

Lakkireddy is interested in non-invasive and medicine-free techniques to treat heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation. He admits that medications are often an essential part of treating atrial fibrillation, but he says that adding yoga to an existing treatment regimen is usually the best strategy to combat the heart disorder.

For Perkins, the combo has provided the assistance that she needs to help control the effects of atrial fibrillation.

“I know every time an episode is coming on, and I can start with my yoga breathing and stretches to help get my heart back to where it was,” says Perkins.