Fitness Magazine

Keeping Yoga Safe for People with High Blood Pressure

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Timothy

Keeping Yoga Safe for People with High Blood Pressure

Monterey Cyprus by Melina Meza

I recently taught a course on Yoga for High Blood Pressure on Yoga U Online. During the program I suggested that doing certain inverted poses such as Headstand (Sirsasana) may not be a good idea, even for some people whose blood pressure (BP) is “well controlled” by medications. But one listener had heard during her teacher training that inversions were okay in this situation. Her instructors had consulted a local cardiologist and shown the doctor the poses in question, and he had said he didn't have a problem with them in people whose BP was under control.
The concern is that when you go upside down, the pressure in the head increases, which could at least theoretically increase the risk of a stroke. I say theoretically, because actually no one really knows how large the risk is, though it's likely very, very small. As I've written elsewhere, more than likely yoga greatly decreases the overall risk of a stroke. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea to push your luck.
Interestingly, blood pressure is one area where yoga teachers are sometimes more conservative than doctors. Aadil Pahkivala, the teacher I worked with on the high blood pressure chapter of my book Yoga as Medicine, has found that some people with well-controlled BP nonetheless demonstrate jitteriness when they do some inversions and strong backbends. This nervous system agitation, which can be visible to the teacher and palpable to the student  (at least the ones who have developed their internal awareness though their yoga practices), suggests a potential problem.
In medical school, we were taught to always weigh risks vs. benefits of any test, drug or medical procedure under consideration. In medicine, this comes under the category of “first do no harm.” In yoga, we've got the same idea with the notion of ahimsa, non-harming, which is considered the foundation of any yoga practice. Again, the risk of a stroke when inverting with “well-controlled” high blood pressure is likely very small, but even a tiny risk of something very bad should be factored in when deciding whether or not to do a particular yoga pose. In yoga, a crucial way to assess safety is to study your student—or yourself, if you're the student in question—as they do the practice in question.
So rather than simply saying, “The doctor says it's okay to do Headstand so let's do it,” a more prudent approach is to let that be the beginning of your evaluation. If you're a teacher, consider the following questions: Does the student appear to have the strength and flexibility to do the pose safely? How is their breathing in the pose? Do they look uncomfortable? Are they able to maintain a healthy curve in the neck? Are their neck veins bulging? How do they say they feel in the pose? It is even possible, if you've got a blood pressure device, to measure the pressure to make sure it isn't spiking in the pose or poses you're concerned about. And if you're a student concerned about high blood pressure, ask your teacher to help you do this evaluation.
Especially when the risks are uncertain, the more information you can get the better. And after you have all the information, it’s time to practice ahimsa.

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