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Is Yoga the Perfect Workout?

Yoga has emerged in Western culture as a workout solution to maintain a lean, flexible and strong body.  We get a lot of flack in the west for taking only the physical (asana) part of yoga practice as being all that yoga has to offer, where many people (east and west) would say that this is in fact the smallest part of yoga, simply a method leading to more important goals such as being able to sit comfortably in meditation. That being said, if you do use asana as a part of your exercise regimen, you need to accept that this is what yoga means to you, and thats ok too.  I believe that no matter how deep you take your yoga practice, the fact that you are practicing asana (or more) is still equally important as you are incorporating some sort of yoga in your life.

long lean yoga body

Long, Lean Yoga Body

But lets look deeper into our asana practice.  There are many different forms or traditions of how we practice asana today.  Although these all technically fall under the “hatha” branch of yoga, we have found ways to create styles and brands that help students understand what they may be getting into when coming to take a class.  The most popular form that I see in Western culture is Vinyasa Flow, a highly physical, active, and dynamic form of yoga that helps to provide a more intense workout.  There are also more restful, passive forms of yoga (yin, restorative) as well as the extremely dynamic and traditional branches (i.e. ashtanga) just to give some examples.

A lot of people use yoga as their primary form of exercise, thinking that this is enough to keep us in shape and healthy.  But the question is, is yoga the ultimate, perfect, all encompassing workout?? Lets examine this based on the vinyasa flow, more dynamic style of yoga that most westerners practice.  We usually start with sun salutations, warming the body up and raising the heart rate which is great for a little bit of cardiovascular activity.  We then follow this with series of standing postures, which help to use our own body weight as physical resistance to build muscle and bone density, similar to weight lifting.  Finally we finish by cooling down with stretches and inversions, which increase flexibility and slow the heart rate down.  This is a very very basic framework for a vinyasa yoga class, but again, is it enough??

cardio is very important


What I didn’t mention above is the most important part of yoga: the breath.  In most vinyasa flow classes we try to utilize the ujjayi method of breathing, which creates a slight hissing sound in the back of the throat.  This is not just a method to sound really cool and darth vader-ish and like we are working hard, there is actually a reason we breath like this is yoga.  When we utilize ujjayi breath we not only create heat within the body to warm up from the inside out, but we are tricking our body by sending it a signal.  This signal tells our body to slow down our heart rate even when working quite hard, therefore keeping us from getting “out of breath” when we are practicing very dynamic sequences.  This is fantastic for yoga, and allows us to control our heart rate and practice longer and harder, but actually goes against a very important aspect of health and physical exercise: cardio.

My feeling is that yoga is fantastic for building lean, long and strong muscle while allowing it to stay flexible, but in order to have a truly balanced workout you should incorporate other methods of cardiovascular activity and possibly even some weight or resistance training.  Cardio is extremely important for heart health as well as burning fat (for those trying to lose weight), and without it you may not see the full results you are looking for.  Also, lifting heavy weights or doing high resistance or isometric weight training (such as the ever popular “barre” classes) will help to fire up your muscles more which can raise your metabolism for as long as 72 hours after training.

Barre is a great form of exercise

Barre Building Strength

So, is yoga the ultimate perfect workout? Probably not.  Its an extremely important part of your workout regimen to help maintain strength, flexibility, and stress maintenance, but adding cardio and other weight bearing activities will help to make a routine that is well balanced and nourishes all the aspects of your body that need it.  Thoughts? Please comment below, as Id love to know what you think of this controversial (especially coming from a yoga teacher 😉 ) topic!

2 comments to Is Yoga the Perfect Workout?

  • Yoga is not controversial!

    Yoga can be safely and appropriately practiced without any tools or accessories. In ancient India, yoga was practiced out in the open and even a mat was not used!

    Yoga is not a workout. It is a work-in. It is not even work-in, because there is no effort involved. It is looking inward. Each yoga pose should be practiced like a meditation with focus on the breath and you close your eyes whenever you are able to and develop the inner gaze. There are two aspects, one to move gracefully and second, to be still and effortless in the pose. The effortlessness is the key all yoga practice. Just like when you learn to drive, you do experience a lot of tension, and then when you become an adept, you are able to relax while driving. Patanjali says Prayathna saithilyam ananthasamapattibhyam. (Relax your effort thereby avoiding strain and you will find joy.)

    You say you need to look for alternative cardiovascular training. Some of the poses such as the full locust (shalabasana) is highly cardiovascular. And there are weight lifting poses such as the crow, the single leg crow. I know one female yogi who is able to do a handstand with only one arm on the floor. Try the peacock (mayurasana) pose pressing both wrists on the floor, with your elbows pressing on the abdomen–it is an excellent method to prevent all sorts of diseases in the gastrointestinal area and it indeed improves your digestion.

    Yoga is not a muscle culture, it is a nerve culture. It addresses not merely the physical body, but the subtle body, and the causal body. It is highly scientific and based on mathematics. It puts both your sympathetic system and parasympathetic system in order. It removes the disharmony between the mind and the intellect.

    I had many personal trainers coming to my yoga class and what I noticed particularly about them was they lacked flexibility only because they worked on strengthening their muscles in the gym. So they could not do many of the poses which required flexibility.

    I am close to 80 years of age and is in fine health because of my practice of yoga. I know yogis who have lived more than 100 years and my teachers have told me of yogis who have lived more than 300 years. Advanced yogis can leave their bodies at will and some famous yogis have left their bodies with their will power only because they have accomplished their mission in life.

    Yoga is the only system, in my humble opinion, that gives you flexibility, strength, stamina, vitality, joy and peace. It is the only system which recognizes the five bodies we have including the invisible prana body (energy body) which is your aura.

    Really,we have to thank the ancient yogis who, without dissecting the physical body, have found the 72,000 nadis and the 541 chakras, all invisible to us. They have discovered the cause of disease which is because of our negative emotions like fear, anxiety, depression,anger and so on. All these negative feelings promote impurities in the subtle body of nadis and chakras. Disease, when it happens, happens first in the energy subtle body, and then after six months you see a knot in the physical body which becomes a tumor.

    Besides, once you learn about the other modalities of yoga such as hatha yoga, mantra yoga, nada yoga, laya yoga, bhakthi yoga, jnana yoga, kundalini yoga, kriya yoga, raja yoga, japa yoga, ajapa yoga, you begin to understand the greatness and the completeness of yoga as a manual for life. Everything you need to know about how to lead your life is contained in the first book of psychology ever written by man: Patanjali Yoga Sutras by Sage Patanjali and he wrote this scientific treatise 2500 years ago!

    This is what the great yogi, Gopi Krishna, wrote in his book on the purpose of yoga: “The purpose of yoga is to accelerate the operation of the mighty law of human evolution in order to achieve the consummation of the process in one lifetime to create a gifted human being blessed with a trans-human state of consciousness.” He further says:
    “I have no words to describe the glory and grandeur of the new state of awareness, which belongs to the accomplished Yogi, in whom the dorman centre in the brain has been activated leading to the opening of a new supersensory channel of perception, that is the Third Eye.”
    The definition of yoga by Patanjali: Yogah chitta vritti nirodaha.” Yoga is the cessation of the chatter in the mind.
    Definition in the Bhagavad Gita: “Dukha Samyogam Viyogam (Freedom from Misery).
    Therefore, let us not forget the lofty ideal of yoga of saving humanity from misery. With yoga, you can conquer your mind, gain a deeper focus, and open your eye and heart to the beauty of life and the unity of all people amongst apparent diversity.

    Yoga is based on Akanda, Anantha, and Ananda. Akanda is unbroken identity, Anantha is limitless in all aspects, and Ananda is blissful state.

    Hope this clarifies some of your concerns and encourages you to learn more about the deeper aspects of yoga.

    Yoga, of course, is not a religion! It is universally available to all. It is spirituality and it allows the yoga practitioner to practice his own religion!
    Do you know that the New York State has just declared yoga as a spiritual practice and not a fitness program. The State differentiates yoga as practiced in the gyms as fitness, and considers yoga as practiced in the yoga studios as spiritual. And they have eliminated sales tax levy in the case of yoga studios in New York. Source: recent Daily News article.

    Thank you for this opportunity to make this comment and hope this is useful.

  • Heidi

    Hello Rama!! Thank you so much for your beautiful and inspirational response to this article I have written. I wrote this purely to invoke conversation from people such as yourself because I thought it was an interesting topic that gets talked about a lot in the western world. I totally agree with you that yoga, when practiced the way that it was intended to be practiced as based on the ancient teachings of patanjali and others, is a totally body, mind, and subtle body experience. We learn to turn inwards, focus on breath, and lower our stress levels (which cause 99% of all health issues anyways) and increase overall physical and mental health. My approach to this article was from more of a western standpoint that has unfortunately become the truth of how most people practice yoga, or shall I say “asana”, which is merely for physical exercise. When practiced solely as an asana practice, of course there are forms of yoga and poses that do induce a more cardiovascular effect in the body but the goal of ujjayi breath and proper breathing is to not allow the heart rate to rise to the levels as if you were say running or cycling.

    I totally respect and agree with everything you have stated above. My intention for this article was for those who only seem to look at asana for physical exercise, and to help them get a more well rounded workout from more of a “personal training” perspective and not so much as a yoga teacher. Best wishes to you Rama and I thank you again for your comment!

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