When most people think of yoga, they think of a gentle, relaxed stretch. This is not without reason: yoga's stress-relieving properties are well-documented. People often forget, however, that yoga is an exercise and does promote muscle toning, endurance and flexibility.
Yoga for Muscle Tone
Yoga postures, or asanas, work muscles in two ways. Many postures, such as chatturanga, the four-limbed staff pose, and paripurna navasana, the boat pose, are body weight exercises that work muscles in the same way as standard pushups or abdominal crunches. The muscles doing the work get stronger by moving through a range of motion while supporting the weight of the body. Other poses, such as trikonasana -- triangle pose -- strengthen muscles by engaging them for balance and support.
While this may seem like significantly less effort than hitting the gym and lifting barbells, a 2005 study by the American Council on Exercise found that participants could do significantly more pushups and situps -- a sign of increased muscle mass -- after eight weeks of Hatha yoga than those who did no exercise. This muscle strength translates visually over time into firm, sculpted bodies.
Benefits of Yoga as an Exercise
In addition to toning benefits, yoga is a weight-bearing exercise, meaning that it puts stress on your bones. When used carefully, bone stress encourages your body to store more calcium, and this makes bones stronger and less likely to break. Yoga postures also move the joints through a full range of motion and loosen tight muscles. "The New York Times" reports that these actions can offset the effects of joint-disabling diseases like osteoarthritis and may diminish or even eliminate joint pain.
Limitations of Yoga
While yoga does tone muscles and can help to maintain existing strength, it does not stress muscle enough over time for someone to "bulk up," or add a lot of muscle mass. Most forms of yoga do not add weight to the postures, and well-toned people may find that pure body weight is not enough to reach their long-term goals. In addition, most yoga workouts are not fast enough to provide a high-intensity cardio workout and, therefore, do not greatly improve cardiovascular fitness.
Getting the Most From Your Practice
If you want to use yoga as your primary form of physical exercise, choose a class that is comfortable, yet challenging. As you become stronger and more flexible, up the intensity by moving through poses more quickly or holding poses for longer and adding new poses and variations. Try different styles of yoga to challenge your muscles in new and different ways, which increases muscle tone.