If you haven’t noticed, yoga is kind of a big deal. Yoga studios featuring traditional classes, as well as variations like Anusara, Astanga, Bikram, Hot Yoga, Iyengar, Vinyasa, and even Beer Yoga, are opening in big and small towns all across America. Yoga was first introduced in the US in the 1800s by Swami Vivekananda, the person regarded as being the key reason yoga exists in America today. Since then, yoga has waxed and waned in the cultural zeitgeist, with spikes in the 40s and 60s being a result of especially charismatic instructors.
Today, yoga’s popularity has been fueled by its claimed fitness benefits. The “fitness lifestyle” has become coveted and popular and has helped many different fitness endeavours grow. While we all know that when it comes to physical activity, doing something is better than nothing. But with so many fitness options like crossfit, jogging, biking, swimming and weight-lifting just to name a few, and the continued time-crunch we all seem to be feeling, we have to ask ourselves, is yoga the best choice for fitness?
Let’s dive into the science and practice of yoga to see if yoga lives up to its fitness reputation.
What Is Fitness?
Before we can measure Yoga as a fitness activity, we need to define what fitness is. Dave Constill, the Professor Emeritus of exercise science at Ball State University defines fitness as simply having the ability to live your life without feeling fatigued. “For normal daily living you don’t need the strength of a football player or the endurance of a marathon runner, but you’ve got to be able to perform your normal activities and still have a reserve,” says Costill.
Professor Costill’s definition is a good starting point. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the largest science association in the world, widens the definition to include a person’s ability to maintain physical activity and health. The ACSM breaks down fitness into 4 categories:
(1) Cardio-respiratory fitness – This refers to the fitness of your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. The better your cardio-respiratory fitness, the better your stamina, the lower your risk for a host of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
(2) Muscular fitness – This refers both to muscle strength (how heavy an object you can lift) and muscle endurance (how long you can lift it). Without exercise, all of us lose muscle mass as we age, which can eventually result in weakness and loss of balance and coordination. Because muscle is such active tissue, it also plays an important role in regulating your metabolism, with every pound of muscle burning about 35 to 50 calories a day.
(3) Flexibility – As most people age, their muscles shorten and their tendons, the tissue that connects muscles to bones, become stiffer. This reduces the range of motion, preventing optimum movement of your knees, shoulders, elbows, spine, and other joints. Loss of flexibility may also be associated with an increased risk of pain and injury.
(4) Body composition – Your body composition refers to the percentage of your body made up of fat instead of muscles, bones, organs, and other nonfat tissues. Though the use of body composition as a fitness and health indicator has come under fire in recent years by those who argue that it’s possible to be both fat and fit, the ACSM and many physiologists continue to assert that too much fat and too little muscle raises your risk for disease and makes movement less efficient.
The ACSM recommends doing at least 3 different activities per week to achieve optimal fitness.
Yoga and Flexibility
Yoga covers the flexibility part of fitness without breaking a sweat. The combination of poses and controlled movements keeps muscles, tendons and joints loose. Yoga also improves a person’s blood flow as well as helping them maintain a full range of motion.
Yoga and Cardio, Strength and Composition
To date, there are only a few reliable studies that have looked at yoga’s effect on the different aspects of fitness (other than flexibility).
In a 2001 study by researchers at the University of California Davis, yoga was shown to increase muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness in college students. In the study, 10 college students were put through an 8 week regimen of yoga training consisting of 4 sessions per week of 10 minutes of pranayama, 15 minutes of warm-up exercises, 50 minutes of asanas, and 10 minutes of meditation. At the end of the 8 weeks, the students’ muscular strength had increased by as much as 31 percent, muscular endurance by 57 percent, flexibility by as much as 188 percent, and VO2max by 7 percent—a very respectable increase, given the brevity of the experiment. Study coauthor Ezra A. Amsterdam, M.D., suspects that VO2max might have increased more had the study lasted longer than eight weeks.
In another study conducted by researchers at Ball State University, Hatha Yoga was shown to significantly improve lung capacity. 287 participants attended 2 yoga classes per week for 15 weeks, with the researchers tracking their lung capacity. The group included athletes, asthmatics and smokers, and they all showed significant improvement in their lung capacity. “The athletes were the ones who were the most surprised, because they thought their athletic training in swimming or football or basketball had already boosted their lung capacity to the maximum,” says study author Dee Ann Birkel, an emeritus professor at Ball State’s School of Physical Education.
Why Yoga Works
Preliminary scientific studies tend to show that yoga does provide fitness benefits beyond flexibility. That seems to go along with the general consensus of yoga faithful, who credit improved health and fitness to their yoga routine. And regardless of whether its a placebo effect or not, the increasing number of happy and healthy yoga studio members is proof enough for many.
At this point, you may be saying to yourself, okay, yoga is good for fitness, but how does standing in weird poses and stretching actually help my fitness? The answer to that question will depend on who you ask.
Several researchers have noted that muscles respond to stretching by becoming larger and improving their ability to extract more oxygen more quickly. In essence, side benefits of improved flexibility include increased muscle strength and endurance.
Some yogis believe that yoga poses help increase lung capacity by improving the flexibility of the rib area, shoulders, and back, allowing the lungs to expand more fully. To that point, researchers have suggested that breathwork further boosts lung capacity—and possibly also VO2max—by conditioning the diaphragm and helping to more fully oxygenate the blood.
Researches and yogis both agree that performing continuously linked poses increase the heart rate, which does make yoga aerobically challenging. Many yoga poses—particularly standing poses, balancing poses, and inversions—build quite a bit of strength because they require sustained isometric contractions of many large and small muscles. Holding the poses longer increases this training effect.
One often overlooked aspect of yoga has to do with the mind-body connection. Yoga tunes you into your body and helps you to better coordinate your actions. Dina Amsterdam, a yoga instructor based in San Francisco and graduate student at Stanford University says that “when you bring your breath, your awareness, and your physical body into harmony, you allow your body to work at its maximum fitness capacity. Yoga class is merely a laboratory for how to be in harmony with the body in every activity outside of yoga. This improved physical wellness and fluidity enhance not just the physical well-being but also permeate all levels of our being.”
Yes, Yoga can be a Great Way to Get Fit
Yoga is a great way to improve your fitness. However, before you go bragging to all your non-yoga friends about how great yoga is and slapping them in the face with the science mentioned above, you’ll want to remember a few key points. Most of the studies that have shown yoga to be beneficial have included at least an hour of practice 2 to 4 days a week. Moreover, each session included meditation, standard yoga poses, as well as more challenging poses like the Warrior Pose, Tree Pose, Triangle Pose, Downward-Facing Dog Pose, Boat Pose, Shoulderstand, Bridger Pose and Plank.
If you want to become and stay fit through yoga, you’ll want to make sure your practice includes poses that build strength, stamina, flexibility as well as breathing-work and meditation. Also remember that unless you’re doing an hour of yoga at least 2 times a week, you’ll need to supplement your yoga with some other form of exercise to reach optimal fitness.