|For those of us who have an existing yoga practice, whether yoga works rarely enters our mind, because the fact that yoga works is a matter of experience. Yet, it is a worthwhile question both for practitioners and those steeped in traditional forms of exercise or considering a yoga practice. Yoga works on the body, mind and emotions in positive, life-changing ways. Many people will enter a yoga room with the goal of becoming slimmer, or changing their physical abilities in some manner, and months later find they are not only physically changed, but their lives have changed. These life changes will have occurred solely through practicing yoga postures.
Starting with weight loss, let’s look at why yoga works successfully as a path to fitness.
Muscles metabolize calories when they are stimulated. One pound of muscle metabolizes 35 – 50 calories every 24 hours. However, the more muscle used, the greater the stimulation, and in turn the more calories required. In running, you use approximately 25% of the body’s muscles. That 25% is only put through about 15% of its range of motion. That is: 15% X 25% = 3.75% of the body’s muscle cells being stimulated by running. Calories are burned because of the duration and repetition of that exercise.
In contrast, a typical yoga practice uses the muscle’s full range of motion, and the muscle is almost completely stimulated. With practice, a yogi or yogini is contracting, stretching and putting resistance on a large percentage of the body’s muscles, through nearly 100% of their range of motion. Therefore, the typical yoga practice is a more efficient use of muscle tissue and higher caloric expenditure results.
Intense forms of yoga, such as hot yoga, work to stimulate the cardiovascular system in the same way. The more muscle cells involved in the activity, the more oxygen required, and in turn the greater the effectiveness of the exercise. In general, oxygen consumption over time depends on 4 things:
Increase any one of these elements, and the time required to get the same cardiovascular result is decreased.
- Muscle mass involved in the exercise;
- Percentage of muscle cells involved in the exercise, or the range of motion the muscle mass is put through;
- The number of times the muscle must make the movement;
- The resistance on the muscles during the movement.
Continuing with the example of running, if you run up a hill you get very out of breath. Running uphill forces the legs through a greater range of motion with more resistance, and the oxygen requirements skyrocket, meaning less time is required to get the same cardiovascular result as running on a flat surface. In a yoga practice, however, applying resistance to a high percentage of muscle mass through a high range of motion, you don’t need to keep your heart rate up for prolonged periods of time, because you use more oxygen in that time.
After exercise, the body continues to consume greater amounts of oxygen than before the exercise. This is called “excess post exercise oxygen consumption” (EPOC). It simply means your body is still working harder after you stop exercising, while it restores itself to its normal resting state. The duration of EPOC is proportional to the number of muscle cells used and the intensity of the exercise. Because of the high amount of stimulated muscle in yoga, the EPOC is high. Some styles of yoga, such as hot yoga, have an even greater EPOC, because of the increased heat and humidity of the yoga environment.
Beyond its effectiveness at calorie burning and cardiovascular exercise, the balance of strength, flexibility and concentration should not be overlooked in a yoga practice. Many athletes in high impact activities with high risk of injury must use strength and flexibility training as a separate component of practice to enhance their ability in their chosen sport, or to protect themselves from the effects of repetitive stress on the body. Running continues to provide an excellent example, because of the high impact of constant weight bearing on knee and ankle joints. While running is effective for cardiovascular development and leg strength, some runners find they get limited upper body strength and a decrease in flexibility. In time, this can lead to injury or discomfort.
Yoga is one of few exercise practices that builds strength and flexibility to the whole body with minimal risk of injury or long-term physical damage. By moving in and out of the postures in a controlled manner and holding the pose over time, the yogi or yogini uses his or her own body weight as resistance. A recent study at the University of California at Davis found that 90 minutes of yoga practice 4 times a week over 8 weeks increased muscular strength up to 31%, muscular endurance up to 57%, and flexibility up to 188% in a group of healthy but previously sedentary college students. Proper practice of yoga works every part of your body equally, and doesn’t overwork the muscles, leading to better balance and alignment in the body and less chance of injury than other forms of traditional exercise. If the goal of exercise is increased physical benefits, the low impact, low risk aspects of a regular yoga practice inevitably mean the yoga practitioner can be confident his or her practice will continue to be regular.
Beyond its purely physical benefits, yoga increases your body awareness and helps decrease stress. The increase in awareness leads to better decisions about what to eat. If you have a regular yoga practice, you are less likely to eat something that is going to make your practice uncomfortable. Instead of fueling your body with lots of foods that digest slowly, the body begins to ask for lighter foods higher in nutrients. It is more comfortable to do yoga with less food in your system.
Also, by reducing stress, yoga reduces eating as a stress response. Comfort foods work, but they usually add unneeded or unwanted calories. Our stressful lives contribute to weight gain because stress increases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol stimulates eating, and encourages calories to be converted to fat. By decreasing stress, we decrease the amount of cortisol our bodies produce.
As awareness increases and stress decreases, yogis also understand that the latent energies of the body are released through the practice of asana. Right energy used begets more energy. As the body opens, aligns, and breath comes under control, we get the synergistic effects of yoga. In traditional forms of exercise like running or cycling, the beginner athlete will initially improve his or her performance by keeping the mind off what they are doing; in effect, distracting themselves from the hard work. But top athletes must be aware of and completely focused on every movement. In this way, they can perfect their breath and movement to conserve energy. But there is a monstrous gap between the two and bridging that gap takes tremendous training. By its very nature yoga requires awareness and attention to the smaller details from the very beginning. Your skill in yoga grows proportionally with this improved awareness. So achieving balance between strength, flexibility, and concentration is a self-mastery with unlimited benefits to the body and overall health of the practitioner.
Increased awareness is both cause and effect of the increased health benefits of a regular yoga practice. You may enter a yoga class for the physical benefits, and within a short time, find that you have received much more.