There are hundreds of forms of yoga, all with varying philosophies. In general, yoga uses postures or asanas combined with breathing exercises called pranayma and meditation to connect the mind and body and improve health. Some forms of yoga were developed to improve the flow of energy through the body while others have a more spiritual focus. Yoga classes can be very gentle and relaxing or they can be extremely physically challenging. Yoga classes that emphasize deep breathing and physical postures can create a cardio workout.
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The goal of cardiovascular exercise is to train the body to utilize oxygen more efficiently. Aerobic exercise trains the muscles of the heart and lungs so that they are stronger and better able to deliver the oxygen the body needs to support activity. When performing aerobic activities, the heart and lungs are conditioned because they work faster and harder to increase the amount of oxygen being delivered to the body.
Deep yoga breathing also helps to condition the heart and lungs and makes them stronger, states the University of Maryland Medical Center. When breathing deeply, the body has to handle the extra oxygen coming in, which over time can increase lung capacity. Just like with cardio exercises, the body becomes trained to deliver and use oxygen more efficiently. It does not condition the lungs and heart as much as an aerobic workout would, but it can provide some of the same benefits.
Yoga postures can be done slowly and in a way that relaxes and calms the body, but they also can be done more vigorously to provide a cardio workout. When yoga asanas such as salute to the sun, standing warrior and others are done briskly and without a break between poses, the heart rate elevates, the breathing rate increases and the body perspires, reports the Yoga Journal website. You can wear a heart rate monitor while practicing yoga to make sure the level is vigorous enough.
For a yoga practice to become an aerobic workout it is necessary to move quickly through a series of yoga postures to keep the heart rate elevated. However, it is still possible to stretch deeply, especially in standing poses such as the warrior postures. Warrior postures involve sinking into a lunge position, which engages the quadriceps and hamstring muscles. These large muscles need oxygen to work, which makes the heart and lungs work harder. If deep belly breathing also is used during the practice an aerobic workout can occur.
However, caution should be used by beginning yoga students or those with injuries. It is best to start in a beginner class to learn proper form and technique first. Then good form can be used when moving more quickly through the poses so that the shoulders, back, knees, hips and ankles are not injured.
Cardiovascular exercises are done not only to shed extra pounds but also to reduce the risk of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. While yoga might not burn as many calories as an aerobic class, it can be part of an overall plan to lower the risk of heart disease.
According to Massachusetts General Hospital, the right yoga practice, which combines postures, breathing and meditation, can lead to a slower heart rate and lower blood pressure and can reduce stress. Yoga teaches self awareness, which can lead to making healthier lifestyle choices, which in turn can reduce the risk of heart disease.