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The hidden heart benefits of yoga

Yoga has been practiced and praised for thousands of years as a way to enhance the well-being of both mind and body. But what scientists didn't know until now is that it may be just as good for your heart as traditional aerobic exercise.

New research reviewed the data from 37 previous studies and found that people who practiced yoga had lower blood pressure, lower levels of LDL or "bad" cholesterol and improved HDL or "good" cholesterol - all factors that can lower the risk of heart disease.

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"When they compared those who did yoga to those who did more traditional aerobic exercise, the benefits seemed similar," CBS News medical contributor Dr. Tara Narula, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told "CBS This Morning." "There wasn't really a difference in how effective those two strategies were."

How does it work? "Yoga's a combination of three things: different postures or poses, breathing and meditation," Narula explained. "In terms of the postures, there's probably benefits to the muscles in how they process blood sugar, as well as improved aerobic fitness depending on how strenuous the yoga is."

But the benefit to the muscles is only a part of it. "Most importantly is really the breathing and meditation part," she said. That's what has the effect of dialing down the body's stress response. "You're lowering your blood pressure, lowering your heart rate and respiratory rate, and decreasing those stress hormones."

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By doing that, Narula explained, yoga helps increase your metabolism, lower inflammation and change the way your body reacts to stress - not just for the duration of your yoga session, but potentially throughout the rest of the day.

The study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, looked at 2,768 participants with an average age of 50.

For those who hate running on the treadmill at the gym or doing other forms of traditional cardio workouts, yoga might offer an appealing alternative. Doctors say managing your weight and getting regular exercise are crucial steps to reduce the risk of heart disease, which kills some 600,000 Americans each year.