What are the exercise benefits of yoga?
Till Torkler asks this question:
“What is your perspective on yoga (Ashtanga specifically) as one’s only form of exercise? Is it healthy to just do a few days modified primary? I‘m interested in your perspective on the need for extra movement practices, in whatever form. Do you think certain parts or muscle groups get neglected?”
This is a great question! Before I answer it, let’s unpack the question a little bit.
Is yoga exercise?
Within the question that Till asks is an underlying assumption that yoga is exercise. But, is that true? Let’s clarify that we are talking about yoga asana here. Those are the movements that we do in yoga. I’d suggest that while yoga asana can provide us with some exercise benefits, exercise does not need to be our primary goal even in a yoga asana practice. If we’re looking to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to define for us when we’re doing yoga and how we might distinguish yoga from say, gymnastics, then Patanjali says our intention is Yoga citta vrtta nirodha: Yoga is a “cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”. Or, we can put that another way: Yoga is stopping our misidentification with the stories we write. Exercise is not mentioned.
If we go with a different text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which is a guide for hatha yoga practices like asana, then health and wellness benefits of asana practice are mentioned. So, yes, we can get some exercise benefits from our yoga asana practice, but it does not need to be the only intention we have in our practice. We might put more of our intention on breathing, for example, in order to calm the nervous system. Or, we might make the focus of our practice concentration. We might let go of looking to see how much exercise we’re getting and instead really focus on maintaining our concentration in practice. All of these are options.
What kind of exercise is yoga?
But, let’s say that you are interested in the exercise benefits you might get from your yoga practice. What exercise benefits are you getting? We are really starting to be able to answer that question with more certainty as there has been quite a bit of research into that question over the past few years.
What the research is reporting is that a yoga practice is well-suited for some kinds of exercise benefits, but not very good at others. Depending somewhat on the style of yoga practice, yoga can offer some strength training benefits. Standing postures in particular are weight bearing, which is good for building and maintaining bone density. Yoga definitely offers benefits in increased flexibility.
What yoga doesn’t offer is significant aerobic cardiovascular exercise (Larson-Meyer, 2016; Hagins et al., 2007). Even a vigorous vinyasa-style class offers only limited cardiovascular benefits, if what we mean by that is getting our heart rate up. Regular aerobic exercise is important for our health and yoga is not the best choice for this. Brisk walking, cycling, jogging, and many other sports and activities would offer greater benefits in that way (Sinha et al., 2013; Hagins et al., 2007). Yoga does offer other types of benefits to the cardiovascular system, however, like improved heart rate variability.
Hagins, M., W. Moore, and A. Rundle. 2007. Does practicing hatha yoga satisfy recommendations for intensity of physical activity which improves and maintains health and cardiovascular fitness? BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 7:40.
Sinha, B., T.B. Sinha, A. Pathak, and O.S. Tomer. 2013. Comparison of cardiorespiratory responses between Surya Namaskar and bicycle exercise at similar energy expenditure level. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology. 57(2):169-76.