Yes, exercise is the catalyst. That’s what makes everything happen: your digestion, your elimination, your sex life, your skin, hair, everything about you depends on circulation. And how do you increase circulation?
— Jack LaLanne
Let’s take a look at the body’s mechanism for moving blood and oxygen: the circulatory system. The circulatory system is responsible for moving blood throughout the body. This plays a vital role in respiration and delivering oxygen and nutrients wherever needed. It also helps to eliminate toxins and waste and deliver hormones. White blood cells travel through the blood, playing an important role in our immune system. The circulatory system is like the subway system of our bodies, effectively transporting the essentials of our bodies to wherever they need to go.
The main organ in the circulatory system is the heart. Made up of a special type of muscle called cardiac muscle, tiny electrical impulses causes the muscles to contract, forcing blood throughout the body. (For more detail click here.)
The heart is split into two sides: right and left. The right side of the heart contains blood carrying carbon dioxide and the left side of the heart contains oxygenated blood.
Blood from the rest of the body enters the right atrium, passes into the right ventricle, and is then pumped to the lungs. The blood moves into smaller and smaller blood vessels until it reaches the capillaries surrounding the alveoli. Here the hemoglobin in the red blood cells exchange carbon dioxide for fresh oxygen through diffusion.
This newly oxygenated blood travels back to left side of the heart, into the left atrium and down to the left ventricle. From the left ventricle it is pumped out to the rest of the body to complete another cycle through the blood vessels. A full cycle typically takes around 30 seconds to complete.
Blood vessels are broken down into arteries and veins. Veins contain blood leading back towards the heart while arteries contain blood flowing away from the heart. Arteries are typically red because the combination of iron and oxygen produces a red color. Contrary to popular belief, the blood in veins is never blue, it is actually a deep maroon color. (For more info click here.)
There is another common misunderstanding that all arteries contain oxygenated blood and all veins contain unoxygenated blood. In most cases this is true. However, when blood makes the loop between the heart and the lungs the opposite is actually the case. The pulmonary artery carries unoxygenated blood to the lungs and the pulmonary vein carries oxygenated blood back to the heart. Remember, arteries flow away from the heart. Veins flow towards the heart.
Yoga’s Effect on Circulation
So how does yoga affect our circulatory system? Yoga improves our overall circulation, the free flow of blood throughout our bodies. Many poses involving extension, such as tree pose, help to increase the elasticity of our blood vessels. Regular stretching also helps prevent our blood from developing cholesterol deposits, which create a thickening of the blood. Yoga also decreases stress and promotes a feeling of relaxation which improves blood flow.
Inversions are some of the best poses for promoting healthy blood circulation. As blood travels away from the heart, it begins to lose pressure (similar to trying to blow a candle out from six inches away vs. 3 feet away). Once the blood reaches our feet, it is under much lower pressure and has to fight against gravity to flow back to our hearts. For this reason, blood can start to collect in our lower bodies, impeding our circulation.
Full inversions such as headstand and handstand draw the blood from our lower bodies back towards our hearts. In these poses we use gravity to increase our venous blood flow to the heart. This increased blood pressure on the right atrium signals for our heart rates to decrease, leading to a state of deeper relaxation. Anytime we bring our heads below our hearts, like in a standing forward fold, fresh blood flows into our brain tissues.
Deep abdominal breathing can also improve our circulation as we saw in an earlier post. Deep abdominal breathing causes a change in the shape of both the abdominal and thoracic cavities. When we exhale deeply from our abdomen, there is lower pressure in our abdomen than in our lower body. This causes the venous blood from the feet and legs to flow up towards the abdomen. As we inhale deeply, the compression of the abdomen causes the venous blood to flow towards the lower pressure of the chest, flowing back to the heart. This cycle is repeated with each inhalation and exhalation, drawing the blood up from the lower body and back to the heart more efficiently.
In general yoga and exercise is very beneficial for boosting our circulation. However, there are many contraindications in yoga for people who have high blood pressure. As we just saw, inversions can increase the pressure of the blood in our bodies. Forward folds can have the same result as we restrict blood flow by compressing our upper and lower bodies. More forceful forms of pranayama such as bhastrika and kaphala bahti also increase blood pressure. If you have a pre-existing condition of high blood pressure these poses and pranayamas should be practiced with extra caution.
Thoughts to Circulate
It is easy to see just how important maintaining a healthy circulatory system is. We can think of the healthy prana being pumped throughout our bodies and anything that doesn’t serve us being allowed to flow out. In a later post we will examine the power of the heart, the most important organ in my personal opinion. Thinking about the heart we can start to lead our daily lives from the heart. Be like your own heart and spread the nutrients of compassion, love, and positivity to those around you!