Yoga practitioners often tout its benefits as a well-rounded exercise source while skeptics write it off as a mere extended period of stretching. While researchers are still studying yoga's benefits, the reality likely lies somewhere in between. A yoga workout provides many health-boosting benefits, but for optimal health, you should make it a component, not the entirety, of your workout program.
Yoga's Many Forms
Yoga comes in many forms, but most classes contain two core components: poses and breathing. Poses are the different movements of yoga, ranging in difficulty from simply lying flat to physically challenging postures. As you perform the poses, you'll carefully control your breathing and, depending on the type of yoga, meditate or chant. Hatha yoga is the basic form, slow-paced and suited for beginners. Other variations of yoga include the faster-paced ashtanga; Iyengar, which uses items such as straps or chairs to help with the poses; kundalini, which focuses heavily on chants and meditation; and Bikram, which you perform in a heated room.
Count Your Benefits
Regardless of your preferred type, a yoga workout provides several research-tested health benefits. The poses will improve your strength, balance and flexibility. A 2005 study at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, found that after eight weeks of yoga classes, participants' flexibility increased between 13 percent and 35 percent, especially in the shoulder and trunk area. Their strength, particularly in the chest and abdominal area, also increased significantly. Additionally, the relaxation and meditation aspect of yoga has health benefits. The movements and breathing will help you reduce stress and manage such conditions as sleep problems and fatigue.
While yoga can increase your heart rate, no research has ever indicated it is an effective source of cardiovascular exercise, according to the "Wall Street Journal." A 2005 study in the "Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" indicated that you expend more oxygen walking than in doing basic yoga. Even strenuous power yoga burns only 237 calories over 50 minutes, according to the American Council on Exercise. Some yoga classes supplement the exercise with a cardiovascular component such as cycling or dancing, though the American Council on Exercise cautions against hybrid cardio-yoga classes, as they reduce the flexibility and balance benefits.
Move On and Off the Mat
Because of the importance of cardiovascular exercise in preventing heart disease, getting aerobic exercise should be your priority when planning a fitness regimen. That doesn't mean, however, that yoga shouldn't be part of that regimen. Aerobics pioneer and physician Kenneth Cooper recommends that people in their 30s or younger adopt routines that are 80 percent aerobic exercise with a 20 percent concentration on muscles and relaxation, such as yoga, according to the "Wall Street Journal." As you get older, yoga can become a larger part of your fitness plan. As a bonus, the added flexibility it provides also will make you less likely to injure yourself during aerobic exercise.