Yoga is an ancient practice for the body and mind. The most commonly practiced style of yoga in western culture is hatha. Hatha yoga benefits flexibility, balance, coordination and weight control through physical asana (a series of movements), meditation and pranayama breathing.
Most yoga classes range from 60–90 minutes and typically begin with a warmup that leads to more intense poses later in the class. During class, you may find your heart rate increasing and decreasing in a wavelike pattern. You may also find yourself breaking into a sweat. But with all of that happening, many people continue to wonder whether yoga can be considered an aerobic activity.
Despite much research and debate, whether the effects of yoga provide a cardiovascular benefit continues to be conflicted. It could boil down to which style of yoga you practice. Many studies have shown hatha yoga classes don’t offer much cardiovascular benefit. However, students of ashtanga yoga, a more intense form of yoga, have been shown to have elevated heart rates during practice compared to hatha. Simply performing sun salutations (a series of postures aligning breath with movement), may be enough to illicit an elevated heart rate and improve cardiovascular fitness.
Two recent research articles published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine further highlight this debate. The first study measured the difference in muscle-activation patterns during different speeds of yoga. Participants performed 8 minutes of continuous sun salutation B, at a higher speeds and at regular speeds, separately. They used electromyography to measure muscle-activation patterns of eight upper- and lower-body muscles. They discovered that muscle activity signals were significantly higher in all eight muscles during the transition phases of poses during the faster sequence as compared to the held phases. Also, greater muscle activity was seen for high-speed yoga across the entire session.
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The second discussed the difference in energy expenditure during the different intensities of yoga during sun salutation B. They measured caloric expenditure using oxygen consumption volume and carbon dioxide production. There were significant differences in higher-energy expenditure, oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production with high-speed yoga.
Results indicate higher speed and vigorous flow yoga can be considered aerobic exercise in comparison with a more relaxed, slower speed or gentle style of yoga. The emphasis, however, should be placed on the speed of the transitions and associated number of poses when targeting specific improvements in cardiometabolic markers. So if your primary goal of yoga class is to be aerobically fit, you should seek out a rigorous vinyasa flow or power yoga class as other styles may be inefficient.
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