News & Perspectives

Yoga for Fitness

For nearly 5,000 years, practicing traditional yoga in India meant sitting cross-legged on a mat and quietly meditating. However, things have changed. Today, yoga is an international phenomenon, and the majority of classes in the United States at least are likely to involve Lycra-clad students stretching, bending, and sweating, often to the accompaniment of drumming or classical music.

Yoga, from the Sanskrit word for "union" or "yoking," was developed in India as a means of bringing mind, body, and spirit into balance. Americans, however, have increasingly emphasized the "body" aspects of this practice, and in the process have turned yoga into one of the hottest exercise trends of the last decade.

A 2001 survey, for instance, showed that more than 18 million people are now practicing yoga regularly, numbers that experts say are still climbing. Today, yoga classes are in such high demand at health and fitness clubs, YMCAs, and adult education programs that there are often waiting lists to get in.

"People are now very interested in mind-body forms of exercise," explains Jan St. John, a certified fitness professional and yoga teacher who owns a fitness studio in New Jersey. "They're tired of pounding their bodies with exercise. And I think as baby boomers get older, they're trying to soften their workouts a little, trying to balance themselves. Yoga fits in perfectly with that."

What Yoga Does
Yoga has many forms, but the most popular in the United States is Hatha yoga, which combines physical postures or poses (asanas), with breathing (pranayama), and meditation (dhyana). Some poses stretch and align the body, while others primarily build muscle strength. Poses range from simple positions well suited to beginners to very complicated and strenuous ones (such as head or shoulder stands) that should only be attempted by advanced practitioners.

"In yoga, your own body weight acts as resistance," comments Jean Lyons, a New York-area yoga teacher. "Depending on the position you're in, the poses engage different sets of muscles, which then get strengthened as you hold the pose."

Classic backbends and twists, for instance, can challenge muscle groups that other forms of exercise don't engage. Says Jean Lyons: "A big benefit of yoga is that it works every part of your body. In addition, it doesn't overwork certain muscles, so there's less of a chance of injury than with other types of exercise."

Beyond stretching and strengthening, some forms of yoga can also provide a good cardiovascular workout, especially those that have brisk movements or flow quickly from one pose into another.

Evidence that It Works
There is increasing research that supports the use of yoga to promote fitness. In one study, done at the University of California at Davis, 10 healthy but sedentary college students attended from two to four yoga classes a week. Each session consisted of a series of exercises: 10 minutes of breath control, 15 minutes of dynamic warm-up, 50 minutes of yoga postures, and 10 minutes of relaxation.

At the end of eight weeks, researchers found that the students' muscular strength had increased by up to 31%, muscular endurance by 57%, flexibility by up to an astonishing 188%, and cardiorespiratory fitness by 7% (which was considered significant given that the study was so short).

Another study, done at Indiana's Ball State University, tested 287 college students after 15 weeks of twice-weekly 50-minute yoga classes. They found that all the students significantly improved their lung capacity.

Try Different Forms
Yoga varies greatly depending on what's emphasized. Some forms focus on strict body alignment, others on holding postures. Many approaches highlight the importance of the flow from one posture to another, and how the execution of each pose coordinates with the movement of the breath (this is called vinyasa and can be used with any yoga form).

The following is a quick summary of the most popular forms of physically active yoga.

Anusara. This new form of yoga, which means "flowing with Grace," is both physically demanding and spiritually fulfilling. Anusara focuses on poses that build muscular strength and stability; the student is encouraged to perform them with an integrated awareness of all the parts of the body.

Ashtanga. In order to build strength, stamina, and flexibility, students of Ashtanga yoga combine synchronized breathing with quick moves and jumps from one pose to another. Because Ashtanga is fast paced and physically challenging, most teachers don't recommend it for beginners. Ashtanga is the basis for what's casually called Power Yoga, an intensely aerobic and muscle-building workout, where poses resemble calisthenics and one position flows rapidly into the next.

Bikram. Aptly dubbed "hot yoga," Bikram yoga is practiced in a room heated to more than 100° F. The saunalike atmosphere is intended to warm up the muscles so they're easier to stretch without injury. Bikram is considered an all-around workout that builds cardiovascular fitness as well as muscular strength and endurance.

Iyengar. Poses here are generally held for longer than in other forms of yoga. The focus is on alignment, coordinated breathing, and the correct use of props, such as cushions and blocks, again making it a good choice for beginners. Practitioners say Iyengar promotes strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility.

Kundalini. In this form, sequences of fast movements are done for fairly long periods of time. Kundalini yoga is designed to "awaken" energy, drawing it from the base of the spine upward into the rest of the body. This form of yoga usually includes chanting, meditation, and breathing exercises as well. Repetition and speed make Kundalini extremely aerobic.

Cross-Training with Yoga
While useful and satisfying on its own, yoga can also be a fine complement to other types of exercise. Certain poses, for instance, can be effective for stretching legs tightened by running, cycling, tennis, or skiing, or for releasing muscles stiffened by weight training. Des Moines, Iowa, resident Mary Pat Gunderson, who both runs and practices yoga, says, "Running tightens me up, but yoga stretches me out. Truth to tell, after yoga I feel just great."

There are also a number of yoga hybrids, including yoga cycling, yoga walking, Yogalates (a combination of yoga and Pilates)--even disco yoga. "With these combo forms, whatever one exercise form lacks, the other compensates for," notes fitness expert Jan St. John. "Used together, they can make an excellent all-around workout."

Finding the Yoga that's Right for You
Yoga instructors emphasize that to get and stay physically fit, students should make sure that their yoga routine includes a mix of different poses, from those that build strength and endurance to those that promote overall flexibility.

Here are a few other good tips:

 Try several different forms until you find the yoga that you like, and then try different teachers within the same form. "I took a class from one Iyengar teacher and thought it was way too rigid, then I tried a different Iyengar instructor and thought, 'Wow! This is great!'" confides Los Angeles yoga student David Williams.

 Find an experienced teacher. Look for someone who can adapt poses to your particular level and physical challenges--say a bad back or injured knee. Before committing yourself to a particular class, interview several teachers about their credentials and approach.

 Know your limits. To avoid injury, always stop if you feel pain or become dizzy. Don't try to do something just because the guy on the next mat is a whiz at it.

 Check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program, including one that includes yoga.
To locate a qualified instructor near you, check out the following resources:  The Yoga Alliance ( requires recommended instructors to have completed at least 200 hours of basic certification work.  The magazine Yoga Journal ( sponsors a directory of yoga teachers drawn from all areas of the United States.

Date Posted: 10/31/2003

Date Published: 10/30/2003
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