After reaching and folding through a round of Sun Salutations and huffing and puffing through a few Chaturangas, you're convinced yoga is not just about stretching. As you drip sweat onto your mat and groan into various pretzel-like postures, you think that this mind-body routine has to count as cardio.
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It goes without saying that quiet, slow practices such as Yin Yoga or restorative yoga, don't offer heart-pumping benefits. But rigorous practices, such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Power Yoga can get your heart rate up during parts of the session. Whether that period is intense enough, or long enough, to afford you the benefits of a cardio workout is up for debate.
Read more: What Type of Yoga is Best for Weight Loss
Definition of Cardio
Cardio workouts use the large muscle groups to raise the heart rate to at least 65 percent of your max heart rate for an extended period of time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you perform at least 150 minutes of cardio per week for good physical and mental health. Traditional cardio workouts include brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming and dancing.
Cardiovascular activity increases the strength and efficiency of your heart and respiratory system. It also helps you burn calories to help balance out those you take in from food and drink to manage your weight.
Down Dog Is Not Cardio
You may see many online or magazine workouts labeled as "cardio yoga." These aren't traditional yoga, but rather workouts that merge classic yoga postures with more traditional athletic activity so you get the cardiovascular benefit. Traditional yoga, even the more rigorous styles, don't count toward your 150-minutes-per-week of moderate-intensity cardio as needed for good health, explains the American Heart Association.
If you're de-conditioned or yoga is new to you, you may find that many of the poses are challenging and raise your heart rate. Usually, however, this isn't for an extended period of time — but only for a few breaths, or several minutes at most. Your heart rate isn't generally high enough for long enough during a yoga class for it to count as a cardio workout. The classic stretching, strengthening and meditation aspects of yoga do provide great heart health benefits, just not in the form of cardio.
Don't Give Up on Yoga Just Yet
Even if it doesn't take the place of your run, yoga offers physical, mental and emotional benefits—and it might even make you perform better when you do take on a cardio workout. Not only does yoga count as flexibility and, depending on the practice, strength training, it activates muscles that you may not target in your more mainstream workouts. This helps prevent imbalances that lead to injury. Plus, staying limber keeps your range of motion on target for all sports and daily activities.
Plus, a regular yoga practice of one hour per day may make your heart as fit — or even fitter — compared to someone who performs regular aerobic physical activity. A small study of 58 people published in a 2015 issue of the International Journal of Yoga compared the heart health of regular yogis against that of people who performed regular cardio activity for at least seven hours per week. The researchers found that the yogis actually performed better in some cardio-respiratory parameters compared to the traditional cardio exercisers, despite the low-intensity of yoga.