What is Yoga? Is Yoga exercise? Is Yoga a spiritual practice? Thus far in our blogs on Yoga, we have focused a lot on all of the ways Yoga can be more than just exercise. However, sometimes Yoga is just exercise, and that is ok too. In fact, it is how we at Lotus Tribe, and scores of other people came to Yoga in the first place.
In this blog, we will be looking at Yoga as exercise- Is it a complete exercise and fitness practice? Which aspects of exercise and fitness does Yoga work well for? Which aspects of exercise and fitness is it lacking in? Is it good for weight loss? Which type of Yoga should you try for your goals?
Yoga, Fitness and Exercise
What most people think of as fitness and exercise traditionally fall into three categories: cardiorespiratory or aerobic training, flexibility training and strength training. So, how does Yoga stack up in each of these areas of fitness and exercise? Lets take a look.
- Yoga as Flexibility and Mobility Training:
- Yoga as Strength Training:
Aside from a lack of flexibility barring some people from the more advanced poses, many of the poses people struggle with today, are the strength-based poses. Think about Chaturanga Dandasana, a part of most modern Yoga classes and a key element in Vinyasa Flow classes. This pose essentially requires one to be able to complete both a plank and a push-up, it is difficult to complete correctly. So much so, that many studios have started offering wrist and hands free sequences to accommodate those that this pose is not accessible for.
Hatha Yoga can help build strength in the lower body and core, being that the core is engaged in most poses (especially if you practice using your Bandhas) and pretty much every Yoga pose requires the legs, except arm balances and handstands. You even get some chest, shoulders and arms in quadruped poses (four limbed poses). However, other than Cobra variations, there are virtually no back strengthening poses in Yoga (most poses for the back focus on stretching, rather than strengthening the back). In short, Yoga is ok for strengthening, but not the best form of exercise if the goal is strength.
- Yoga as Cardiorespiratory and Aerobic Training:
- Yoga and Other Types of Training:
Although exercise and fitness are traditionally put into the three categories of strength, flexibility and cardio; Kinesiology (the field that studies exercise and human movement) has been rapidly expanding the last few decades. Kinesiology has begun looking at other aspects of exercise and fitness such as mental training for performance; corrective exercise, motor control and therapy and balance and stabilization training. Within the exercise and fitness continuum, balance and stabilization training has become the foundation and is seen as a prerequisite to other forms of fitness like strength, cardio and sports performance. Mental training is part of the higher levels of training, along with sports performance.
Hatha Yoga excels in both balance and stabilization training, as well as mental training. It is even used by many therapists (Physical Therapist, Occupational Therapists, etc. Yoga Therapists are not actually therapists, unless they have some form of medical credential outside of their Yoga training) for pre and post rehab purposes. More specifically, Yoga helps people foster greater levels of kinesthetic awareness and proprioception (essentially where their body is in space and fine motor control), as well as balance. These are things almost everyone, from the elderly and those recovering from injuries to top level athletes, need more of. On the mental training front, most sport and performance psychology skills come down to meditation, mindfulness and using the breath to control arousal and anxiety or visualizing success.
Yoga As Exercise Q&A
- Is Yoga A Complete Fitness and Exercise Practice?
Although Yoga is a great movement practice and can be used as exercise, as you read above, it is lacking in some areas and excels at others. When picking an exercise and fitness program to follow, it is important to match your training to your goals. Most exercise regiments do not hit all of the different aspects of fitness. If you're goal is greater mobility, balance and coordination or to help you destress and relax, then Yoga is a great practice. If you're goal is bodybuilding, snowboarding or gymnastics, Yoga probably isn't the best fitness regiment for those goals. It could definitely be a good addition to those peoples' main routine though, helping them stay limber and aiding in active recovery.
- What Can We Add To Yoga To Make Our Fitness Practice More Complete?
Yoga is lacking in strength training and cardio training. Essentially, you need a resistance training program, a cardio program and a mobility/balance/stabilization program for total physical fitness. So, adding in a form of resistance training and cardiovascular training to your Yoga practice would complement and round out your fitness and exercise regiment. This could look many different ways, but I like to mix weight lifting, Yoga and cycling/hiking for a complete health and fitness program.
- Who Would Yoga Be A Good Type Of Exercise For?
Yoga is a great form of exercise for anyone and everyone. It has a lot to offer and anyone, regardless of the demographic, could take something from a regular Yoga practice. It is an especially good form of exercise and fitness for people who want to work on balance, coordination, flexibility and mobility. It will also help with modest strength gains in the legs and core. This would make it suitable for everyone, even the most seasoned athletes (especially as a form of active recovery). These aspects, as well as Yoga being generally low impact, make it a great form of exercise and fitness for the elderly.
- Is Yoga Good For Weight Loss?
In terms of weight loss, Yoga will help you burn calories, but studies show that it is not the most calorie intensive workout, if this is your main goal. It is also important to note that weight loss has a lot more to do with what you eat than exercise. You cannot out train a bad diet. That being said, I personally find that Yoga helps me lose weight when I do the more active forms of Yoga.
- Which Type of Yoga Should You Try For Your Exercise Goals?
This really depends on your goals. If you aren't familiar with the different types of modern Yoga, I recommend you give our blog on Modern Yoga a look. I do not know of any forms of Yoga that push the heart rate into high enough zones to be an effective form of cardiovascular fitness or for metabolic conditioning. If you're looking for a Yoga class that is more focused on flexibility, alignment and recovery, try slower paced Yoga classes such as Yin Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Iyengar Yoga or Gentle Yoga. If you're looking for classes to push you more on a physical level, make you nice and sweaty, work on flexibility and strength, you should try Power Yoga, Vinyasa Flow, Hot Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga.
There are also numerous types of modern and fusion Yogas out there, like Yoga with weights, that can marry strength and flexibility training. My personal favorite type of Yoga is Yin Yang Yoga (perhaps a more appropriate name would be Yang Yin Yoga), which brings the best of the two types of Yoga. Yin Yang Yoga classes typically start with a more vigorous or Yang style of Yoga, similar to Vinyasa Flow or Power Yoga, and end with a slower, flexibility focused Yin Yoga portion.
- Where Did Yoga as Exercise Come From?
If you've read our previous blog on the meaning and history of Yoga, you might remember that Yoga was originally a spiritual practice, but in the 15th century, Hatha Yoga was formalized as a means to help train and purify the body. Many people think Hatha Yoga practice predates its formalization by Svātmārāma in his Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā. This makes Hatha Yoga one of the oldest types of exercise that is still practiced today.
Originally, there were just 84 Yoga Asanas or poses, but in the early 1900s Hatha Yoga was further developed thanks to men like Shri Yogendra, Swami Kuvalayananda, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya of Mysore, K. Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar. These men built upon the original Hatha Yoga poses, adding elements of wrestling, gymnastics and military fitness training (This was during the time of British colonization of India). As such, this was a fitness regiment with a heavy focus on both strength and flexibility, resembling calisthenics in many ways. It was originally practiced solely by men and was slow to let women into their ranks. Eugenie Peterson, better known as Indra Devi, was the very first woman to be allowed to practice Hatha Yoga under Tirumalai Krishnamacharya at the Mysore palace alongside BKS Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois.
Yoga can be both a spiritual practice and a form of exercise or fitness. It can help you burn calories and get some movement. It can help you destress and relax. It can help you connect with something greater than yourself. It can help you become more mindful. Yoga can be whatever you need it to be and if you practice it regularly, your relationship with Yoga will probably change and develop over time.
Is Yoga the absolute best form of exercise? Probably not, as it is lacking in some areas, but most types of exercise don't hit all aspects of fitness. Where Yoga does excel, is in training flexibility, mobility, coordination and balance. All of which are very important, especially as we age. The truth is, the best type of exercise and fitness is the one that you will actually do. We evolved for movement and most people don't get enough of it. Find a type of movement you love and stick with it.