Is yoga enough to improve your flexibility? Definitely. Your mobility? Certainly. Your anxiety levels and sleep quality? For sure. But your cardio-fitness? And your strength? Now, there’s the question.
As more of us increasingly rely on yoga for our main, or even sole, workout, are we missing out on the benefits that a more varied exercise routine can offer? And while we appreciate the importance of mixing things up to keep our muscles challenged, whether due to our over-scheduled-diaries, the convenience of home practice or simply our love of yoga, we’re ditching the treadmill in droves for sun salutations.
In an ideal world, I would go to a yoga class five times a week, using this as my main workout with a couple of outdoor runs to clear my head and elevate my heart rate and the odd strength-training session thrown in as I enjoy the sweaty, accomplished feeling swinging kettlebells gives and know the strength gained compliments my practice. However, as a working mum, spinning a lot of plates, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon - unless I start getting up at 5am instead of the already ridiculous 6am I already set my alarm for to fit everything in.
More often than not, I have to choose between a quick run and rolling out my yoga mat at home. Yoga nearly always wins because it satisfies on so many levels and when I practice intensely, dynamically and include a lot of standing balances and arm balances I know that I’m definitely maintaining, if not increasing, my fitness and strength, while getting all the associated mental perks. How do I know this? Well, I can run faster and further than before despite not training to do so, and I can do more press-ups, and varieties of press-ups, than I ever could when I was training at the gym. Evidence of yoga's ability to improve fitness, however, goes well beyond my personal anecdotes and non-scientific experiences and I was excited to discover while researching this blog that some satisfying research has been undertaken on this hot topic (see below for links).
So back to the question. Is yoga enough of a workout? For a long time, fitness experts said no. But the latest findings shows, it can improve our fitness if practised at an advanced enough level at a fast enough pace, just don’t expect it turn you from a non-exerciser to a marathon-runner overnight. As with most things in life, it depends. It depends which kind of yoga you do, it depends how fit you were to start with, it depends how often you practice….. For example, the research showed that by increasing the intensity of your yoga session by incorporating more standing and balancing poses, as well as jumping or quick-stepping between different positions (sounds like Ashtanga to me) you get more fitness benefits.
As for strength, virtually every yoga pose builds strength – just think how your muscles are engaged in sun salutations, chattarangas, standing balances and chair pose – it may not be the definitive, measureable strength you get in the gym when you move up from say the 8kg to 12kg kettlebell, but this is real-life, functional and translatable strength. I can do more press ups now than I ever could when I was training at the gym - at a time when press ups actually formed a part of my routine! Simply because my arms have got so strong from yoga. Seriously, how cool is that? Goodness knows why I ever wasted so much time at the gym working each part of my body separately, lifting a dumbbell up and down, when I could have been connecting all of the dots at once with yoga? No amount of lifting weights ever made my arms as strong or defined as holding up my own body weight as yoga has. What’s more, practically everything we do in yoga engages our core – and without ever doing a sit-up, my abs are stronger and flatter than they’ve ever been.
However, we need to be a little bit cautious before we roll out our mats seven days a week and forsake all other activities. If you want yoga to be your only workout, you need to practice dynamically and engage deeply in the poses to activate the muscles and yoga is not all about this.
Yoga is not about always having the best, most challenging, most advanced, most sweaty flow. Our yoga practice should be balanced, with a beginning, a middle and an end complimented by yogic breathing and a mindful intention. We mustn't be tempted to let the athletic standing sequences muscle out the therapeutic seated poses or restorative Savasana – or we are no longer practising yoga. So I’m going to keep trying to squeeze in those park runs or the odd HIIT class for the cardio benefits and not expect yoga to deliver everything.
As always, sending love & light from my mat to yours
What to know more?
For more insights and research into the relationship between yoga and fitness, I recommend reading Yoga Journal’s great article on Is Yoga enough to keep you fit and the excellent piece by Anna Almendrala for the Huffington Post, which discusses the research of Dr Enette Larson-Meyer, a metabolic energy researcher at the University of Wyoming who also happens to be a yoga teacher, who published a systematic review of 17 studies that measured the amount of energy spent doing yoga.