High Blood Pressure & Yoga?

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Nicole asks:

I do the gravity poses, but I get tension headaches. My traps, neck, rhomboids on my left side are so tight I get an instant headache when I stretch them in the slightest way. I am afraid to do too much. How will this help? Should I go slower?

That’s really interesting. I’ve never heard of that kind of stress response. I don’t have a fixed answer for that, Nicole. All I can say is if stretching immediately gives you a headache, that’s probably a real good indication that you need to stretch more. How you can do that without getting a really strong headache, I’m not sure.

Whatever you do, do not stretch when you’re taking painkillers, and this goes for anybody. It’s a really common problem. People in yoga class will hurt their hamstring or their lower back and they’ll take something which they think is harmless, like a couple ibuprofen before they go to class, and these over-the-counter medicines seem like they’re no big deal but they’re really very, very strong. Something like ibuprofen can mask pain to a degree that’s just shocking.

And so I always say this, but most injuries are re-injuries. What I mean by that is you get a warning sign from your body, you ignore it or your mask it with painkillers and you keep going, and that’s usually when most injuries happen.

If you’re someone who gets headaches, specifically make sure you’re not on any kind of painkillers, even over-the-counter stuff when you’re stretching. I don’t have any solution in terms of what to do, except I would just say start slowly, try to ease your way into it, make sure you’re warmed up and keep in touch. I’d love to hear if you find a solution, if you find relief and if increasing your flexibility decreases those headaches. I’d love to hear the results of that.

Evan asks:

I have been having difficulty with some of the poses because my circulation seems to get cut off after 1 or 2 minutes, and I get pins and needles, which is very uncomfortable. I especially get this in hangman pose. If I get pins and needles, should I back off the pose, wait for feeling to return and then stretch back into it? Or should I just live with the pins and needles and hold the stretch?

This is a great question, Evan. Whenever you’re doing long-hold poses, gravity yoga poses, or if you’re doing any kind of extended practice, like any kind of seated practice, meditation, pranayama, it’s totally natural and normal to get pins and needles. It’s not a big deal when you’re doing relatively short holds. So generally, we’re working in the 2 to 5-minute range. It’s not a big deal at all. Your best choice, Evan, is just to deal with it. You’ll find that not only do the pins and needles pass very quickly, but your tolerance for it increases to the point where it stops being such an irritant and it goes away.

If you’re doing longer holds, like for example if you’re doing seated meditation or pranayama practices for say 30 minutes-plus, pins and needles then can start to become a problem, in terms of nervous system health and things like that, when you start holding for really, really long periods of time with pins and needles. It can have some negative effects to your nervous system.

But when we’re talking about 2 to 5-minute holds, you can just bear with it, and you’ll find that it gets easier and easier and your tolerance for it, you stop even noticing it. You get up and you just shake your leg out and you’ll be fine.

I have weak knees from a running career. The lightning bolt pose hurts my knees when I try to sit back. When I back off and sit up, my knees don’t hurt, I don’t feel the stretch at all. Is there another pose or stretch I can do, even if it isn’t a gravity pose, to try and increase my pelvic rotation to improve my back bends?

The first thing is, it’s great that you’re being cautious. Don’t mess around with your knees. Lightning bolt pose is fantastic for your knees, but it can also be really aggressive for your knees and so you need to be careful with it and what you’re doing is correct. If you start to go back and you start to feel twinges of pain or radiating or electrifying pain, you need to back off right away. So you’re doing the right thing.

Is there another pose? Yes. Another pose that gets right into your psoas muscle, the top of your legs, is the full frontal splits. And you can do this in a gravity way, you just need to use something to support yourself. We have some videos, I believe, on our YouTube channel. The way to do it is you can get two blocks, two books, two pillows on either side so you can support your weight and make it so it’s not so intense, but full frontal splits on both sides is a good way to go.

Gretchen asks:

I used to practice yoga and even Bikram himself. Due to a series of whiplash injuries, falls and stuff, I have not been able to practice for years and I long to do it again. I really injured my loin, the right side of my body and a slight fall moving the wrong way. Can I ever practice again?

Gretchen, a lot of people come to yoga with pre-existing injuries, previous injuries, that are looking to rehabilitate their body and to heal. Bikram yoga is a good way to heal. I often recommend people go to static forms of yoga when they’re looking to heal knees and backs and things like that.

The only thing you have to be careful of is the heat can sometimes mask pain, in the same way we talked about ibuprofen masking pain. Heat, in a lot of cases, can also mask pain. So your lower pain might be quite sore and you’ll go into a heated room, and with the heat the soreness might disappear but it hasn’t really disappeared. It’s just a cosmetic thing and you can really do some damage, so just be careful with that.

Can you ever practice again? I’m not sure. It depends on how big your issues are. Can you have some kind of practice? For sure you can. Bikram yoga is really pretty strong, hot yoga practices in general are pretty strong. You might want to start with something gentler, perhaps a Hatha yoga class, perhaps a more restorative yin-style class. Take it easy and see what your body can accommodate, but for sure you can practice yoga. You just need to find the right practice for you.

Dalila asks:

: I don’t have much time to practice physically, but when I do I notice my stability and balance is not as good as before when I was doing the course with you. I now totally believe it’s a loss of muscle. Can you please explain about the subject of muscles and balance? How do I go ahead? Do you suggest that I start some weight exercise, like body pump for example, to tone the muscles?

Body pump is a group fitness class. If you’ve ever been to a gym, group fitness classes, pretty comprehensive group fitness classes, I think they’re a pretty good series. Balance and strength, how are they related? For sure they’re related, especially when you’re talking about asymmetrical balance or if you’re talking about uncommon balance, so balancing on your hands, balancing on your forearms, balancing on your head, balancing on one leg at a time, balancing on one leg and one hand like a side plank or a Vasisthasana.

How can you get your balance back? The best way is really just to keep practicing. In terms of doing strength practices for your lower body, it’s interesting in yoga, yoga does a really, really great job of balancing, toning and strengthening the lower body if you practice it comprehensively. There’s very few yoga series that are very comprehensive for the upper body. Now there are fantastic series, for example the Ashtanga Primary Series is very well rounded for the upper body, but like a Bikram-style hot yoga class doesn’t have a whole lot of upper body balance. So sometimes people will do things like push-ups or static hold handstands at the wall, and that can be beneficial.

In terms of finding balance for your lower body, for your legs, I would just say do more yoga. I don’t know that you’re going to find doing weight-bearing stretches and body pump classes beneficial, but if you do, for sure do it. But I would think probably, more than likely, you’re going to get the most results just from practicing more yoga.

Vera asks:

My husband suffers from high blood pressure. At the same time, he is skinny. He runs 2 miles every morning and does not smoke. He will not take medication, only homeopathic medicine. We are currently somewhat in an emergency situation. What are the yoga exercises he can do to help that? Do you have a specific video for high blood pressure?

High blood pressure can be very, very dangerous. It can be lethal. I wouldn’t mess around with this. I’ve always been counter-culture, anti, nonconformist, to the point of kind of neurosis, and there’s good and bad things about that and this is one of those situations where bad things can happen when you just refuse to do what the doctor says.

Blood pressure lower medications, I think it’s top three medications in the world so it’s really, really common. They’re definitely over-prescribed. I would definitely prefer not to take them, but you’ve got to be careful with your health. Homeopathic medicine is interesting in that it gets results. It’s even more interesting in that there’s very little, if any scientific basis to how any of these results happen.

Especially something like high blood pressure, I would certainly not mess around with homeopathic medicine, but that’s just me. I would look much, much, much more towards dietary changes and I would look towards breathing and progressive relaxation practices and things like this, and I would for sure work directly with a doctor. Again, whatever I say here, I would just say go straight to your doctor, and if your husband’s stance is, “Hey, I’ve got to go the natural route,” that’s a conversation you have with your doctor. What you say is, “Listen, I’m really opposed to medication. What can I do?” If he says, “Listen, there’s nothing you can do, you’ve got to take medication,” I think you need to listen to that advice. But a lot of doctors are really open to it, they just don’t know what their clients want and most clients want pills.

So there are some things you can do. So again, my first recommendation is go talk to your doctor, tell him what you’re doing because you don’t want to mess around with that, and homeopathic medicine, in this case, personally I don’t think it’s a smart choice.

In terms of things you can do to lower your blood pressure, the most effective things that people typically do are breathing practices and mindful meditation practices, pretty much any form of meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure. It doesn’t need to be overly complex. You don’t need tons of experience. Mantra meditation is one of the simplest ones that people get results with.

In terms of breathing practices, you’re looking at doubling your inhale to exhale ratio. So were you to inhale to the count of 4, you’d exhale to the count of 8. You can do that 10 rounds, 3 sets of that each day. It’s kind of an over-simplification, but honestly if all you did was follow those instructions you would probably see some significant benefits right away.

Again, I hesitate to give you any kind of advice because you want to go work with a doctor and you don’t want to mess around with this because it can be really, really serious, but there are some things, but work in conjunction with your doctor. I bet you’ll be surprised at how open you can find doctors are if you’re really clear about what your objectives are.

J asks:

I have done some stretching, gym classes, but never was really flexible. Now I am just sick and tired of being so tight that I can barely put on socks, tie shoes and cut my toe nails. How should I start out? Please set me on a path to flexibility so that I won’t feel like I am double my age.

It’s interesting that you say this, Jay, because I remember before I started yoga I could never put on my shoes without sitting down. It was just one of these things. My hips were so tight and my hamstrings were so tight that I couldn’t lift my foot up to my hands to slip a shoe on. I had to always sit down. That was when I was in my early 20s, and it makes you feel like an old man, it really does. Youth and flexibility and mobility and agility, they go hand-in-hand. You just feel free in your body.

So what can you do? Where should you start? Just start. There’s no magic anything. You just need to start stretching. If you’re really looking for flexibility and that’s your main objective, I always tell people to start with gravity poses. Start with long hold, passive stretches that are targeted specifically for flexibility. There are all kinds of fantastic things in the world of yoga, but if you’re looking for flexibility, if you want to tie your shoes, start with gravity yoga because that’s what it’s designed to do.

So you’re dedicating at least 15 minutes a day and you’re holding poses for 2 to 5 minutes, you’re completely relaxed and you’re working on lengthening your body’s connective tissues. That’s what it is. You can change your body. It’s one of these things that you can have. Not everybody can be a millionaire, not everybody can look like a supermodel but everybody can become flexible. It’s accessible to you, but you do have to put in the work.

Jeff asks:

I’m always scared when I hear “Heart-opening pose” because my back is really not flexible. Lately, I noticed lots of hand touching behind the back poses were very hard on me. There is an incredible imbalance where on one side I can touch and on the other not even close. On the side where it is hard, it gave me a very sharp pain in the chest. Is there anything you can recommend to avoid the pain, gain flexibility and fix the imbalance?

In yoga classes, sometimes you’ll hear yoga teachers using things like “Open your heart” or a “Heart-opening pose.” These would generally be back bending poses. Back bending poses don’t actually stretch your back. They stretch the front side of your body. So where you’re doing a full back bend, it’s your shoulders, it’s your intercostal muscles, it’s your torso, it’s the tops of your legs. Heart-opening poses make people feel very vulnerable. If you imagine you are walking down a dark street at night and some person jumped out in the street and screamed at you, immediately, instinctually, your reaction is to cover your heart, scrunch your shoulders by your ears and protect your vital organs, your heart specifically. So that’s our fight or flight response.

So for us to do the opposite of that, which is to bring the shoulders together and down the back and to bulge your heart forward is literally to expose yourself physically to danger, and a lot of people have a visceral emotional reaction to that. People will sometimes in a yoga class, if they do a lot of backbends, sometimes they’ll cry even. And that sounds very foo-foo and it’s like, “What’s that all about?” but it really is a biological thing. We are hardwired to protect our vital organs.

In order to do a deep back bend, you really have to make yourself vulnerable. So there’s a serious, serious psychosomatic element to heart-opening poses or back bending poses. Jeff, in terms of what you can do is just keep practicing. There’s no real magic bullet. Just keep practicing, and also just acknowledging the fact that what you’re doing is sort of counter to your biology is helpful, because then you realize, “Okay, were I in nature’s situation, were a saber tooth tiger going to pounce on me, this is not what I would do but here I am safe in my bedroom or in a yoga studio, and I can do this.” It makes it a lot easier.

On the second part of the question in terms of muscular imbalances, everybody has this. So right side is tighter than the left side, right hamstring tighter than the left. There’s no real magic solution. The thing I always tell people is if you’re practicing on your own, never just practice one side. That will screw you up even more. I always practice both sides. So if you’re doing a stretch on the right, do it on the left, but hold the tighter side 50 percent longer.

Let’s say you’re doing the full splits on the right and left side. The full splits on the right is brutally tight, and the full splits on the left is making some progress. So you do a one and-a-half minute on the right side and one minute on the left side, and that way you start to come back to balance. But you’ll ever achieve balance, so don’t get frustrated by it. Just acknowledge that life is about imbalance and is about moving towards the center but you never quite hit it, unfortunately. That’s the depressing news.

I tried the half moon pose for the first time, but on each side I was getting a sensation that something was locking up around the outside of the hip/thigh. This isn’t the first time I felt like this, so I try to do lots of hip openers, but it just doesn’t seem to be working. Am I targeting the wrong muscles?

There are two types of half moon pose that are commonly taught. Ardha Chandrasana is the Sanskrit name of the pose. In hot yoga classes, they teach a standing pose with your hands interlaced above your head, and you kind of make your whole body look like a crescent half moon. In Vinyasa classes or Iyengar-style classes, they teach a different form of Ardha Chandrasana which doesn’t look anything like a moon, but it has the same name.

I’m not sure which one you’re referring to, but in terms of feeling like you’re locked up around your hips, I don’t really know what to say. A lot of times in a yoga pose, you’ll just feel like you’re hitting bone. You feel like you’re hitting bone-on-bone. You just feel like you’re totally blocked, you don’t know where the space is going to come from and sometimes it comes from funny places, like perhaps you get a little bit more rotation in your ankle, for example, or more rotation in your knees or you find more mobility in your middle or upper back, which are common places where people have really lost range of motion.

The key thing is, I wouldn’t get so obsessed about targeting the wrong muscles. I’d just get focused on practicing and doing a really good practice, and you’ll find that you’ll work through and find those openings naturally on their own.