Ayurveda: The Secret to a Happy Heart

Photography by: Thayer Allyson Gowdy
Ayurveda: The Secret to a Happy Heart

Your doctor knows the keys to preventing heart disease, and chances are so do you. They are straightforward and well publicized: eat a healthy diet, exercise often and reduce your stress load. Sounds easy. So why aren’t more of us making these changes? Why is heart disease still the leading cause of death among women in the United States? Put these questions to Thomas Yarema, M.D., a physician in Aptos, Calif., and he’ll give it to you straight: “The reason that the American Heart Association’s recommendations often don’t work is that many people simply don’t groove with them.”

To have a healthy heart, Yarema explains, you have to have a happy heart—and that means finding a way to make lifestyle changes in a way that brings well-being, rather than a feeling of deprivation or punishment. Yarema is also an Ayurvedic practitioner and says that the ancient Indian “science of life,” or Ayurveda, can help Americans navigate good heart health and lifestyle changes more joyfully.

In Ayurveda, your physical, mental and emotional characteristics clue you in to your dosha—one of the three energies that govern everyone and everything: vata (air), pitta (fire) and kapha (earth). Each of us is predominantly one “type,” and we see optimal results when we make changes that jibe with our tendencies. The standard recommendations on heart health—with its emphasis on a low-fat diet and vigorous exercise—is really aimed at only kaphas, Yarema says. “When you’re handing out the same lifestyle advice to everyone, you’re only hitting the mark one-third of the time.” Know your type, on the other hand, and you’ll be able to choose changes wisely—and focus on what will not only make you happiest, but also give you the best results.

VATA: THE CREATIVE TYPE

Body type: Ectomorph, thin, long and lean
Emotional tendency: Anxiety
Biggest heart risks: Arrhythmias, palpitations, tachycardia and vascular spasm
Heart-health focus: Stress reduction

You’re a vata if
Your energy comes and goes in quick bursts.
You’re prone to digestive issues like constipation or gas.
You love cold, dry, windy weather.
You feel anxious and fearful when you're stressed.
You have a hard time falling or staying asleep.
Your skin is dry, thin and prone to fine lines.
You sometimes forget to eat.

FOR ARTISTIC vata types, every moment is a new adventure. These expressive individuals are always on the move, traveling through life from one pursuit to another.

Vata’s motion-driven, highstrung nature has direct consequences for heart health. Research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2008 found a direct link between anxiety and heart disease—men who tested high (in the top 15 percent of study participants) on four separate scales for anxiety had a 30 to 40 percent increase of risk for heart attack. Less is known about how anxious women fare, though the problem is likely to be as prevalent if not more so, since it’s well documented that women are more likely to suffer from anxiety than men. Indeed, many female heart attacks are misdiagnosed as panic attacks, says Jane Schauer, M.D., a cardiologist in Albuquerque, N.M. who has embraced Ayurveda as an adjunct to her practice. And women are far more likely than men to suffer from palpitations, arrhythmias, and the kind of vascular spasm that can lead to broken heart syndrome (a condition brought on by a surge of stress hormones).

The key to keeping these creative types healthy is to focus on creating calm. “The vata mind is like a pinball machine. Vatas love to be stimulated—but then it’s easy for them to get completely overwhelmed,” explains John Douillard, D.C., Ph.D., Ayurvedic practitioner and founder of LifeSpa in Boulder, Colo. “The most important thing vatas can do for themselves is get on a good quality routine and stick with it to create a little more regularity in their lives.”

Focus on stressing less
Ayurvedic experts agree: The single most important thing a vata type can do for heart health is to adopt a stress-reduction program. Learning new ways to deal with anxiety when it does come up can help a vata type handle it in stride. But don’t bother telling a vata to sit still and calm down—their restless nature will often resist, say, seated meditation. Better to give them something to do with all that nervous energy. Slow and gentle breathing exercises are perfect, explains Claudia Welch, D.O.M., an Ayurvedic practitioner and educator in New Mexico, because they calm the nervous system.

Alternate-nostril breathing:
1. Find a comfortable seated position in which you can sit upright without fidgeting. Establish a regular breathing rhythm—breathe deeply, but don’t force it.
2. Block the right nostril with your right thumb, and exhale deeply through the left nostril, then inhale deeply. Close the left nostril with the pinky finger of your right hand, and exhale completely through your right nostril.
3. Still holding the left nostril closed, inhale through the right nostril. Then block the right nostril with the thumb as you exhale through the left. Then inhale through the left, switch and exhale through the right.
4. Keep breathing in this pattern, alternating exhaling and inhaling with your left and right nostrils. Finish on an exhalation through the left nostril. Drop your hand, and relax deeply for several seconds before you get up and continue with your day.

Other heart-health moves for vata types:
FITNESS FIX: Get creative with your workouts Instead of hitting the gym five days a week, vatas should mix up their exercise routine by dancing. “A vata likes to be creative, emotionally expressive, and spiritually uplifted,” says Yarema. “Dance is perfect. Inwardly, vatas always know they need to dance, but sometimes you have to give them permission to do it. Once you do, they’ll say, ‘Yes! I’ve always wanted to do that.’ ” Sign up for salsa or ballroom dancing lessons, find a NIA or Zumba class, or join a local dance circle.

DIET DO’S: Reach for healthy fats
Surprisingly, vata types need food that can help weigh them down a little. In contrast with other types, they often benefit from adding more fats into their diet (choose healthy monounsaturated fats, such as olive or flaxseed oils, or use ghee, clarified butter). You should choose foods that are warm, soupy or heavy; root vegetables are especially grounding. Avoid the salad bar, especially when stressed, as it features cold, dry, rough foods that make a vata feel unbalanced.