AskYogaMDQuestion: I often suffer from headaches, tiredness, and the feeling of being “over the hill.” I have been told this may be due to high blood pressure. Are there any practices that can help?

Sandra Amrita McLanahan, MD responds:

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a rise in pressure within the small arterioles, causing the resting (or diastolic) pressure in blood vessels to be raised. The cause for this is not well understood at present, though it is associated with such factors as family history, overweight and diabetes. But there is much evidence that stress is a primary factor chronically stressed animals tend to develop hypertension. Many patients are helped simply by tranquilizers.

Thus, it is not surprising that the incidence of high blood pressure is rising. Currently, approximately one in every six adults suffers from hypertension. The reason this is such a cause of concern is that where high blood pressure is present, the possibility of heart attack or stroke is greatly increased.

High blood pressure probably contributes to this effect by accelerating the process of arteriosclerosis, the aging of the arteries into hardness. To prevent this is the main reason why high blood pressure should be detected and treated as soon as possible. In fact, everyone should be tested at least yearly, as there may be no obvious symptoms for many years, and by that time damage of such volume as to produce heart attack may have occurred.

Diet, exercise and relaxation are all important in the treatment (and also the prevention) of high blood pressure. First, the right weight (even slightly below) needs to be maintained. And because salt raises the pressure, it should be reduced both from the table and the cooking. Spices like thyme, oregano, basil, dill and cumin can be used to help the food taste good without salt. Even black pepper in large amounts can be an offender.

In general, a vegetarian diet is very helpful. Vegetarians have been found to have lower blood pressure on the average (in fact, the standards may have to be rewritten for them). In addition, vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels in their blood. (Cholesterol levels are correlated with higher heart attack rates.)

Finally, birth control pills may raise blood pressure; therefore, they should be avoided by those with the condition or whose family has such a history.

As for exercise, research has shown that yogic pratices lower blood pressure. All the asanas (postures) are helpful for the tense person with high blood pressure, with the exception of the head stand. (The head stand might cause undue strain on the small cerebral arteries in a person suffering from hypertension.)

One of the great values of the yogic postures is that they can be done without strain by persons of any age. Unlike many normal exercises, they tone the body without building up muscle fatigue. As a result, they release tension from the system, rather than create it.

Writing in the official journal of the American Congress and Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Dr. L. Huddleston concludes that the Yoga exercises “not only improve flexibility of the trunk and extremities, and increase muscle strength and coordination; they help develop grace and poise of the entire body, reduce nervous tension and establish a sense of well being.”

This seems to get directly at the level of stress that may be the original cause for the high blood pressure. In fact, levels of stress hormones in the blood are much lower in Yoga practitioners, and remain lower when stressed, as compared with control groups.

Deep Relaxation
But perhaps the most important practice in Yoga, as regards high blood pressure, is Deep Relaxation. Writing in The Lancet, Dr. R. Russell reported his work done with a group of patients. Eighty percent showed improvement in blood pressure readings.

Deep Relaxation consists in lying on the back (Savasana) on a flat mat or rug. Feet are kept a foot or so apart, arms a little away from the body, palms up. To begin, a few slow deep breaths are taken. Then each part of the body in turn is squeezed tightly for five seconds, then dropped like a stringless puppet. This process starts with each leg, then each arm, the buttocks, stomach, etc., ending with the face.

After this squeezing and releasing, the mind goes over all the parts in the same order, telling each part to relax without moving. It is a matter of using your mind to teach each part of your body what it feels like to be really relaxed.

Once the body is completely relaxed, you draw the awareness to the breath, and without controlling it in any way, observe its flow. The breath will become very slow and calm. Then you can draw the awareness inward, to the mind itself, letting go of any worries or anxieties. When the mind is relaxed, you remain in a state of awareness, in a feeling of peace deep within.

This is the key to Deep Relaxation. It is conscious relaxation—of the body, the breath and the mind – rather than sleep That is why 15 minutes of Deep Relaxation is as restful and rejuvenating as a couple hours of normal sleep.

The benefits of Deep Relaxation can’t really be conveyed by scientific data alone. You need to experience the total peace it brings. Yet it is a very scientifically designed exercise. By lying in Savasana, all the muscle groups are at rest. The back muscles particularly can let go of their straining to keep the vertabrae in line against gravity. The breath becomes calm, and the mind, released from the busyness of daily activity, but remaining alert, can assume a meditative state. Much scientific evidence supports the conclusion that the practice of meditation itself lowers blood pressure.

Deep Relaxation can be done by a person of any age. Care should be taken not to strain when the squeezing is done. For disabled persons who are not comfortable lying on their backs on the floor, it can be done on a bed or in a chair. It should be done at least three times daily. And breathing exercises (pranayama) could follow these sessions for maximum benefit.

All of these yogic practices offer help in getting to the source of the problem of hypertension. One of the simple but perfect examples that Swami Satchidananda often used is that of the automobile “lube job.” To lubricate a car, the old grease is removed by forcing it out with new grease under pressure. We are all in need of a “lube job.” By doing these yogic practices we can force out the old tensions and toxins, keep the blood vessels in a relaxed state and better withstand all stresses. We will then be able to return to our true state of ease and peace.