Being diagnosed with high blood pressure often comes as a shock. You may not have had any symptoms at all. Only very high blood pressure will give you headaches and chest pain. If your blood pressure was over 140/90 you were probably given medication, and a whole list of things you can do to lower your blood pressure naturally. Items like de-stressing and eating more veggies probably didn’t come as a surprise … and made you roll your eyes.
To start with, it is good to know your blood pressure and check it at least once a year, because untreated hypertension can lead to a heart attack, stroke, accelerated development of arteriosclerosis, kidney disease and dementia. So medication? Yes please. It is possible that you can reduce your dependence on medication through lifestyle changes, so this blog will look at those and of course give you yoga tips — practising a gentle style of yoga can benefit hypertension.
The recommended lifestyle changes may seem overwhelming to you. In fact, just thinking of them makes your BP shoot up. How can you become less stressed if the source of your stress will not go away? How can you eat more healthily if you hardly have any time as it is? Is it really possible to change eating habits that have given you comfort for years?
It is such a cliché, but the phrase “one step at a time” helps me in these situations. You may not see the end result clearly, but you can take one step. If the recommendations just seem too much, choose one small thing to change this week, and persevere until it has become a habit. Maybe this is mindful walking for 10 minutes a day while you are going to work, maybe 15 minutes of yoga every day before going to sleep, maybe you can reduce your alcohol intake, maybe change your daily biscuits to fresh fruit. Make this one task a priority. Once this change has become a habit, choose the next small step.
What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure refers to pressure within the arteries during the 2 phases of the heart cycle. The first reading is the pressure in the arteries when the heart is contracting (systolic) and the second reading is the pressure remaining in the arteries while the heart is resting between contractions (diastolic). Optimal blood pressure is supposed to be 120/80; above 140/90 is considered high BP. Our blood pressure fluctuates – it can go up by 10 or 20 when you feel anxious, e.g. while having it measured at the doctor’s office!
Factors that can increase HBP are age (over 65), diet, body weight, a stressful and sedentary lifestyle, and genetic predisposition. Medication such as ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents can also cause the BP to rise. HBP does not only occur in people who are overweight. One can be very thin and have hypertension.
• Eat healthily: eating fruit and vegetables, seeds and nuts, whole grains and other high-fibre foods like beans will contribute to a healthy diet and provide minerals and vitamins that have been shown to reduce BP (potassium, magnesium, calcium and vitamin C).
• Reduce salt. Here are some NHS tips for how to cut down on salt, helpful e.g. when you have to eat out often.
• Limit alcohol. See these tips here for cutting down on alcohol.
• Exercise regularly, preferably gentle and cardiovascular exercise.
• Stop smoking.
• Include stress-reducing techniques that work in your life: walking, massage, yoga, meditation, etc. The stress may not go away in your life but every effort you make to relax your mind will help.
Yoga is of course excellent for stress reduction and also provides gentle movements that help you feel more relaxed and better in your body. It also encourages body awareness that may prompt you to eat healthier. Before giving you some movements, below is a list of things you better avoid in a yoga class. These guidelines are important even if the hypertension is under control with medication.
• Avoid yoga movements and breathing techniques that involve effort. This includes holding the breath and holding poses for a long time.
• Avoid strong standing postures, at least initially, inversions and abrupt movements from standing to supine, or jumping from pose to pose.
• Don’t do inversions such as handstand, headstand and shoulderstand. Dog pose can be an exception.
The amazing advantage of yoga is that it works on the body as well as the mind; with regular practice it can reduce mental and emotional stress.
Try a regular, gentle yoga practice that includes:
• Gentle movements, coordinated with the breath.
• Relaxation techniques
• Relaxing breathing techniques
• Meditation, this can be breath awareness
Below is an example of a simple practice that is short enough to add to a busy day, and simple enough if you are a beginner. Other blogs on this website show gentle movements that could be equally beneficial. The movements are simple but very effective when done in coordination with the breath.
1. Inhale and raise both arms forward and up, palms facing up. Exhale and lower the arms, with the palms facing down.
2. Inhale and raise your arms up to the sides, lower them with an exhalation. Again the palms face the way they are going.
Up and down on toes:
Inhale and come up onto the toes while bringing the arms up (forward and then to the side, level with the shoulders). Exhale and lower the arms and the feet. Be very attentive to making the breath exactly as long as the movements: the heels only touch the floor when the exhalation is finished.
Inhale and bring one arm up, stretch that one side of the body, exhale lower the arm down. Do the same with the other side.
Warrior pose 1, dynamic:
Place the right foot about 2 feet forward. Both feet stay equally on the floor and the hipbones face forward. To see if you have the right distance between the feet: bend the front knee and make sure the knee does not go beyond the knee while the back heel stays on the floor.
Inhale and bend the front knee while widening the arms to the side.
Exhale and return to the starting position.
Repeat 4 to 6 times with the right leg forward and then do the same with the left leg.
Swing your arms as if they are completely free, blowing in the wind and hanging loose from the shoulders. If your SI joints hurt or feel unstable, keep the hips facing forward.
Inhale and raise both arms and the right knee. Exhale and leaving the knee where it is, turn towards the bent leg. Inhale return to the centre with the arms up. Exhale and lower arms and right knee. Alternate legs and do 4 to 6 on each side.
Long exhalations in the relaxation pose:
Lie on your back with your legs bent, maybe with a cushion under your head. This can be done in a seated position as well, but your yoga practice is enhanced if you lie down for at least 5 minutes at the end. So if you choose to do the breathing sitting down, which is very good, still lie down for 5 minutes afterwards.
Breathe normally and watch your breath. Observe the ratio of inhalation vs. exhalation: is the inhalation or the exhalation longer? Are you breathing fast? Is the breath slowing down as you observe it? Take a few minutes to observe the quality of your breath at this moment. When your breathing feels relaxed, count the length of inhalation and exhalation. If you can, encourage a ratio of 4 counts for the inhalation to 6 counts for the exhalation — without any effort – then keep breathing like this for a few minutes. The longer exhalation promotes relaxation but the breath should never be forced.
Do you have high blood pressure? What is your experience? Has something helped you in particular? Have you tried yoga? Please share it with us!