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.
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??
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.
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!