Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) include hypertension (high blood pressure), coronary heart disease (heart attacks), cerebrovascular disease, peripheral artery disease, rheumatic heart disease, congenital heart disease and heart failure.
Heart Disease: Why Your Cardio Health Matters
The World Health Organization reports that “An estimated 17 million people die of CVDs, particularly heart attacks and strokes, every year”. Along with smoking, poor diet and lack of activity are among the top three primary causes.
In 2012 the European Heart Network reported that:
- Each year cardiovascular disease causes over four million deaths in Europe and nearly two million deaths in the European Union (EU).
- Cardiovascular disease is the main cause of death in women in all countries of Europe and is the main cause of death in men in most countries in Europe.
- Cardiovascular disease costs the EU economy over 195 billion euros annually.
Cardiovascular Disease Treatment
Of course, many if not most people will resort to drug therapy and continue on with the same behaviours that underlie cardiovascular disease, but the multi-billion, *name-your-currency* question is: Should society mass medicate in response to lifestyle issues?
Ultimately, people will have to make the decision for themselves. And although discussions about whether to take pills is all very interesting, the whole debate could be trumped by prevention. That is making simple lifestyle changes—namely to overeating (of particularly heavily salted or sugary foods) and lack of exercise—especially before symptoms arise, but even afterwards. Because the fact remains: only the immune system can make a person healthier. No pill cures disease or actually severs the root of any cause for illness. It can only absolve symptoms, sometimes to magnificent degrees of success, but often times to the detriment of other bodily systems.
In the case of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), which account for nearly half of all deaths in Europe (2), the Western medical model asserts that arteries close down from fatty deposits and hardening. Restricted arteries can thereby lead to heart attack and other CVDs. This is only half the story though.
Eastern Perspectives on Maintaining a Healthy Heart
From the Eastern perspective, as the body ages or closes down, as a result of injury, illness or poor lifestyle choices, so too do the arteries, and particularly around the hips, shoulders, neck and torso. Interestingly and probably not coincidentally, the paths of the major arteries (leading from the heart) spread in three primary directions (see image above):
- Down to the legs, also feeding the internal organs;
- Up and under the collar bone into the neck and brain;
- Through the armpits into the arms.
These spaces in the body shrink and shut down as the ill effects of tension, poor diet and lack of movement—over a lifetime—compound and build up. The arteries in these areas, by default, also become compressed and condensed, and therefore start trapping fatty deposits within themselves.
So along with a healthy diet, the way in which you move (or don’t move, as the case may be) your body is of high importance. Now a lot of medical professionals do indeed recommend exercise to patients suffering from cardiovascular diseases, but the quality of exercise is as important as exercising itself.
Healing Qi Gong Therapy for the Heart
From an Eastern perspective, any exercise for a person with compromised health–whether from cardiovascular disease or for any other reason–should meet three criteria:
- Slow movement
- Gentle movement
- Repetitive movement
Some people will receive a proper wake-up call after suffering a heart attack or getting the news that they have high blood pressure. The next thing they do is start running or jogging. We’ve all seen the winded middle-aged man forcing himself down the street, conjuring an image of a dog with his tongue hanging out and looking as if he’s just going to pass out on your front garden right then and there! This strategy is definitely not advisable as it’s not sustainable and, more importantly, forcing blood through restricted arteries could actually cause an even bigger issue.
So I’ve got three slow, gentle and repetitive exercises that are good for anyone, but especially recommended for those who are suffering from a health issue, such as cardiovascular disease.
Integrated Postural, Lengthening, + Deep Breathing Heart Exercises
Three basic energy boosting exercises, taking only minutes to perform, are particularly effective for relieving the compression and condensing that occurs in the arteries:
- Proper postural alignments
- Lengthening exercises
- Deep, diaphragm breathing
Improve Your Posture
The process starts by learning postural alignments in standing qi gong, which can later be applied to every daily activity (including sitting in front of a computer). Standing with particular focus on the spine takes the kinks out of the “tubes” (arteries and veins) and extends open the soft tissues of the body. The tubes then stretch, allowing blood to flow through unimpeded rather than becoming blocked from poor posture and contractions.
Lengthening Energy Exercises
With postural alignments in place, lengthening from the spine out to the fingers, toes and head, stretches affected areas, further aiding blood flow through and unblocking restricted arteries.
I’ve got a three-part, how-to series on how to create space in your body that makes use of lengthening techniques (start here). Just take it easy and keep your effort to well below half of your maximum effort until you become familiar with the exercises and can do them well.
Deep, Diaphragm Breathing
Once proper body alignments and lengthening exercises are sufficiently learned and integrated into daily practice, then the focus shifts to one of the easiest ways to stimulate whole-body relaxation: breathing. The key is really getting the diaphragm to move up and down because this action will create a full, deep breath, which thereby increases blood flow through the arteries. When blood circulates unimpeded throughout the body, it naturally takes pressure off the heart. This reduces stress and releases tension lodged in the heart, which is beneficial whether you are incredibly healthy, or suffering from high blood pressure or some other form of cardiovascular disease.
Don’t Put the Cart before the Horse!
It’s worth noting that increasing blood flow through breathing practices before the alignments and lengthening work is in place will yield only partial results. Increased blood flow can also raise blood pressure in some people, so learning and practising good posture is a critical first step to avoid putting untoward pressure on the heart.
Other How-to Tips for a Healthy Heart
Another aspect of keeping proper alignments that will improve blood flow and breathing is making sure your shoulder blades are not too far back. They will restrict the movement of the diaphragm and put pressure on the heart, which restricts blood flow in and out of the heart. The shoulder blades separate, the back rounds and the spine raises. This opens up the major flows in the body—not the least of which is allowing the blood to exit the heart and travel unrestricted in the three primary directions (toward the legs, arms and head).
When the neck is correctly aligned, the blood will shoot up to the brain and, more importantly, return again. When the elbows are extended out from the spine and the fingers extend from the elbows (after the shoulder blades have been rounded), the blood can fully flow to your fingers tips and back.
Additionally, when you sit in the kwa (the leg connection through the pelvis to the spine) during standing qi gong practice, you want to drop the sacrum and tailbone. This lengthens the spine down and opens up the torso, taking out the big kinks in the aorta and the vena cava—the largest blood vessels in the body. Sitting in the kwa and extending the knees out the spine and opening the feet out from the knees allows the blood to shoot down from the legs and return to the heart.
One of the main issues for those with low blood pressure is that the blood from the feet does not return to the heart. Simple weight shifting and squatting exercises—with specific alignments—can really improve the way the veins behind the Achilles tendons shoot the blood back up the legs towards the heart. I teach these exercises in almost every qi gong course I offer as they are the foundation of all more complex horizontal and vertical movements.
Increasing Blood Flow for a healthy Heart
In many exercise regimes, the name of the game is increasing the heart rate to pump more blood. If you take someone with incredibly restricted blood vessels and ask them to perform aerobic exercise, you may pump blood around the body. So this is okay to a point.
However, an enormous amount of back pressure to the heart will also be created because the whole vascular system is shut down to some degree. This makes the heart work overtime to push the blood through the restricted blood vessels.
Conversely, if you open up the body through the alignments and lengthening of the soft tissues, and only then perform aerobic exercises, the heart will pump through an open system. This will alleviate any extra pressure on the heart, yet the heart will work stronger than it was before.
In both cases, the heart is working harder, but with the proper alignments and lengthening—simple non-aerobic qi gong energy exercises—the heart must not undergo any additional stress. This is why first opening up the vascular system fully before initiating aerobic exercise is safer, more gentle and much more reliable for maintaining a healthy heart.
Qi Gong Energy Exercises for Life
There are a seemingly limitless number of ways to improve blood flow. They all start with proper bodily alignments to take the kinks out of the arteries and veins, as well as extending open the soft tissues of the body. This allows the tubes of the body to stretch so that blood can flow through unimpeded rather than become blocked through poor posture and contractions.
Alignments and tissue stretches, along with deep, diaphragm breathing techniques, are used to increase blood circulation using these principles. Your blood delivers oxygen and the nutrients necessary to feed and repair every cell in your body. Restricted blood flow will downgrade every function in your body. So optimising blood flow is critical to maintaining and building health and vitality.
All energy exercises—from the simple to the more advance (e.g. tai chi)—work the major blood vessels of the body and therefore the vascular system. The purpose is to take pressure away from the heart by pumping blood around the body since reducing the heart’s output is necessary to relax and balance blood pressure throughout the vascular system.
Qi Gong Heart Exercise: A Personal Mission
At least one-third of the world’s population is suffering from some form and degree of cardiovascular or other stress-related diseases. Depending on how you consider the numbers, it could be closer to two-thirds. Prevention is the key. My mission is to educate people about how simple energy exercises to improve posture and stretch the soft tissues of the body can have a significant impact on your overall health and well-being. You don’t even have to do more complex exercises like tai chi to see positive changes in yourself. All of the exercises I teach have been trained and refined for at least 1,500 years. They have helped tens of millions of people to help heal themselves in China, and a growing number of people in the West. The only person who can answer whether these results can be the same for you is you!
Standing (or even sitting) qi gong coupled with either simple lengthening exercises or relaxed breathing can be done in a matter of minutes several times a day. These practices not only interrupt stress spikes at critical moments to keep deranged thoughts and negative emotions at bay, but also serve to keep your body’s systems functioning optimally. Considering the range and risk of potential adverse effects from drug intervention, the effort required is rather insignificant and has the added benefit of supporting a happy and more fulfilling life along The Way.