Updated: Dec 21, 2018
Some people say that all you need to do for physical activity is yoga. Other people say it's just a nice compliment to a workout. And a third group says, absolutely not even maybe. But what is the real answer? Well, that depends.
What is your definition of exercise?
- Something that makes you sweat. That can definitely happen in a yoga class, and it doesn't even have to be in a heated room! There are asanas (poses) and ways of breathing that raise the body temperature. Sun Salutations, normally practiced at the beginning of Vinyasa practices, are a great way to quickly warm the body. All that moving and breathing in an enclosed room can absolutely cause people to work up a sweat, especially when there are a lot of people in the class.
- Something that gets the heart pumping. A couple of Sun Salutations, vinyasas, or fast moving flows can easily raise the heart rate. This is especially true if the body is not conditioned to moving that way. Depending on how long you've been practicing, stepping onto the mat and going through a sequence may or may not get your heart beating at the "target heart rate" in accordance with the American Heart Association. However, like prolonged aerobic activity, prolonged yoga has a similar affect on the heart. It causes the resting heart rate to decrease, and the heart becomes stronger and more efficient.
- Something where you lift weights and build muscle. Most yoga classes don't have any weight racks or dumbbells. However, there are some variations where light weights are used during the class or for therapeutic applications. Even if weights aren't used, the student still lifts and lowers the body: lifting and lowering in chatarunga dandasana, balancing on the hands or arms, keeping the arms lifted in isometric contraction during warrior poses, squatting down into chair pose, etc. The list can go on. If you've ever held any of these, you can vouch for the strength it takes to hold them with support and integrity.
What type of yoga are you doing?
There are different type of yoga practices: some are more active and some are less active. The types of yoga described in this post lean toward the more active side of Vinyasa Flows and Power Yoga. These classes are faster paced and move through more vinyasas (the chatarunga, up dog, down dog flows) than other forms of yoga. The practices on the opposite side of the spectrum that come to mind first are Gentle and Restorative. Gentle yoga is, as the name suggests, gentle. It's slower and less physically demanding, with soft movements that connect you with your body. Restorative yoga allows the body to be fully supported by props for five minutes or more while you relax, receive a gentle stretch, and restore.
While all types of yoga are beneficial in their own way, the amount of activity in each class can be very different. Be sure to read the class descriptions and go in with an open mind. Even if the class is not what you expected, it might be just what you needed.
Is yoga really exercise?
I'll let you judge that for yourself. I think the practice is an exercise, but not necessarily in the way you might think. The real exercise, the real challenge for me, is showing up and making the commitment to do the practice and letting go of control enough to allow transformation to happen.
So what do you think? Is yoga really exercise? Let me know in the comments below!