Tulsa yoga instructor says practice helped change lifestyle, alleviate heart problems, anxiety

TULSA - Millions of Americans suffer from atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart beat known as heart arrhythmia. Doctors usually prescribe medications and procedures such as ablation, or even surgery to treat the problem. However, some say yoga should be on that prescription list, too.

"Breathe in. Scoop up that intention," Jennifer Skaggs, a certified yoga instructor, tells her class as she leads the participants through the deep breathing, stretching and strength poses of yoga.

"I come from a small town and I didn't know what yoga was. At all," she told 2News anchor Karen Larsen.

She's come a long way since her teen years, when she suffered from a serious ailment. "I'd get out of bed, take four to five steps to the bathroom and just drop."

For over a year, doctors put her through a variety of tests in an attempt to pinpoint the problem. One episode even sent her to the emergency room. However, Jennifer says it wasn't until she went to the cardiologists at the Oklahoma Heart Institute in Tulsa that she was finally diagnosed with a heart condition.

"That [condition] is really exacerbated by adrenaline," said Dr. David Sandler, the director of heart rhythm services at the Oklahoma Heart Institute. He added, "So, when she introduced yoga into her life -- that dramatically reduced her episodes of passing out." 

Sandler cites a recent study, which found yoga can reduce the risk of certain heart arrhythmias by 40 percent.

"That compares very well to some of our medications and is an excellent option for some of our patients who don't tolerate medication or are looking for alternatives to medical therapy for their arrhythmia," he added. 

Other studies have found people who practice yoga's deep breathing, stretching and meditation have lower stress and depression, as well as an improved sense of overall well being. Muriel Williams, who just tried yoga for the first time, agrees.

"I thought that I would try it out -- see how it feels," Williams said. "And it feels amazing!"

At the new I AM YOGA studio in Tulsa's Pearl District, men are showing up for classes in increasing numbers. Studio co-owner Joe Picorale said, "When they do come they realize how difficult it actually is so they usually keep coming back."

Jennifer Skaggs tells her class yoga didn't change her, but helped her find the ability to change. Within a year of taking classes, she was able to stop taking her heart and anxiety medications.

She says all it took was finding the courage to try that first class. Now, she works hard to spread the good news about yoga.

"We slim down most of the time and we get long, lean muscles and we get detox benefits and we make great friends. But the root of it is peace," she said. "A deeper sense of trust and knowing. We cannot expect to walk into the doctor, tell us what to do and then we leave and do nothing else. We have to take our health, both physically and emotionally, into our own hands. We have to." 

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