Can yoga cure your COVID stress? A new Texas State study is testing the theory. – Houston Chronicle

“The pandemic has raised my blood pressure,” she said. “It never heightened to an alarming level, but I could definitely feel it. It was high for me.”

Allen purchased two blood pressure gauges and began taking measurements, while also trying different breathing techniques from yoga. It turns out that the slow, expansive breathing central to certain practices helped lower her blood pressure.

“And that’s important for me,” she said.

Allen is a certified doula, perinatal yoga teacher and childbirth educator. She’s also passionate about helping others lower stress and blood pressure.

This concept is going under the microscope at Texas State University this February.

Stacy Hunter, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance, received a $400,000 grant in November from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine in support of her research, “Yoga Postures and Slow Deep Breathing in Altering Mechanistic Outcomes in Hypertension.”

Participants between the ages of 40 and 60 will be monitored for blood pressure, immunity and vascular function as they practice 12 weeks of yoga.

“I’m interested in the relationship between the immune system and blood pressure regulation,” she said. “Immunity is not just about fighting viruses. There are more and more studies showing how the immune system plays a role in hypertension, diabetes and other disease.”

Hunter explained that free radicals, highly reactive cells, exist normally in the body; their production increases with age.

“We produce them all the time for normal metabolic function,” she said. “We need free radicals. They play a role in cellular signaling.”

The problem arises when too many are produced, Hunter explained. Then, the free radicals cause damage to the cells.

“Free radicals can cause blood vessels not to dilate as much,” she said.

But antioxidants help break down free radicals.

In the study, Hunter hopes to determine whether yoga increases antioxidant capacity. The investigation will also reveal whether yoga breathing techniques are able to decrease hypertension on their own — or if the breathing should be paired with poses to maximize the benefit.

Hunter’s lab recently published a study about yoga breathing techniques. Participants practiced for 20 minutes a day, four or five times a week, resulting in a significant improvement in vasodilation, or widening of the blood vessels. This leads to greater blood flow and less pressure on the walls of the blood vessels.

The NIH grant will allow Hunter to further investigate the benefits of yoga breathing techniques.

She has been studying the health benefits of yoga since 2008, while still a graduate student.

In the past, she focused on arterial stiffness, which is also linked to hypertension and other diseases. She found that yoga practitioners in their 20s demonstrated improvements in arterial stiffness, while participants over the age of 40 did not. Those between 40 and 70 years old, however, did show better vasodilation.

Her current study could further illuminate how yoga techniques can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In the meantime, Houston yoga instructors have a number of recommendations to lower stress and blood pressure.

Allen points to a number of different breathing techniques used in yoga that can be beneficial, like “ujjayi breathing,” used to calm the mind and focus on breath.

Allen also utilizes “bhramari pranayama,” another calming breath practice that includes vocalization.

“A lot of times people don’t know how to take a deep breath because their cores are so tight,” she said. “We rely on vocalization because it forces you to exhale. And when you exhale completely, it feels more natural to inhale.”

Allen explained that stress can affect physical, emotional, spiritual or mental health.

“One thing is for sure, when we breathe mindfully and expansively, we disrupt stress patterns,” Allen said. “And when we disrupt stress patterns, we make room for other possibilities.”

Amanda Hale, founder of Yoga Tres, said all of the instructors at her practice lead students through synchronizing breath with movement.

“It creates a long, even breath,” she said. “That helps release stress and lowers your blood pressure.”

Hale added that her students often complain about higher levels of stress when they are not able to take their usual yoga classes.

“They can tell,” she said. “They know that they need to come in. It’s our time to really feel grounded. For me, that’s also true with my mental health and stress reduction.”

By focusing on breath, Hale explained, students become present. They are not able to obsess over the past or worry about the future.

“In our classes, we focus on the moment and being in tune with your body,” she said. “We want everyone to let go of what’s happening outside the classroom.”

Hale recommends several poses to alleviate stress, including the Seated Forward Fold, or pashchimottanasana. In the seated position, simply fold forward, lean toward the toes, keep the back flat.

“You’ll feel a lengthening,” Hale said. “Take a deep, long breath. It allows you to lower your heart rate and for all the tension to fall out of your body.”

A similar move is the Standing Forward Fold, or uttanasana. This time, stand with knees slightly bent. “Just let your upper body fold,” Hale said. “Relax your head, all of the tension in your neck and jaw.”

Downward-Facing Dog, or adho mukha svanasana, is a more active pose that can help lower blood pressure, Hale said.

She also recommends the Legs Up the Wall pose, or viparita karani. Here, you sit as close to the wall as possible, raise your legs and rest them on the wall.

“You’re in a resting position, and you’re able to deepen your breath and grow calm,” Hale said.

She recommends taking a break in the day to try a few of these moves and reduce tension.

The studio will soon launch virtual yoga classes and a meditation class to help even more with focusing on breath and lowering anxiety.

Hale wants to make yoga and meditation as accessible as possible, allowing more to benefit from lowering blood pressure and stress.

“A lot of people have a misconception that you already have to be fit or be flexible to try yoga,” she said. “That’s absolutely not true. And being present, using the breathing techniques, can affect every aspect of your life.”

The techniques are especially helpful as people try to navigate COVID, Hale added.

“With all the stress in the pandemic and upheaval it has caused in their lives, they need something to ground them,” she said. “Yoga can contribute to that.”

Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based freelance writer.