A peaceful "om" isn't the only thing you can get from practicing yoga — this mind-body practice can also help you get in shape. But the time it takes that yoga-induced fitness to start showing depends on where you're starting from, your personal goals and the details of your yoga practice.
How quickly can yoga help you get in shape? Your yoga sessions should start feeling easier within a couple weeks of diligent practice, but depending on how you define "get in shape," it might take a few more weeks beyond that for the long-term benefits to show.
What Does Yoga Do for Your Body?
"Yoga can be a great way to build strength, mobility and general fitness," says Paul Warloski, CPT, RYT-200, yoga instructor and head coach of Simple Endurance Coaching.
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However, some yoga styles are better for certain body benefits than others. More vigorous forms of yoga, like Ashtanga and Vinyasa, will get you sweaty while challenging your strength, balance and endurance. Meanwhile, slower-paced forms, like Yin and restorative yoga, can be great for relaxing your muscles, reducing stress and improving flexibility.
Still, most yoga styles can help boost your mental and emotional wellbeing. After looking through 23 studies, the authors of an October 2017 review in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded that yoga can be effective in reducing symptoms of depression.
Become More Flexible With Yoga
Along with stress reduction, flexibility is one of yoga's main perks. Many yoga poses stretch your muscles and improve your range of motion. With time and regular practice, yoga can help increase your flexibility.
How much time? Odds are, you'll feel more limber by the end of a single session. However, it may take longer to notice lasting improvements in flexibility: "I'd say about eight weeks," says Stephanie Thomas, CPT, a certified personal trainer and yoga instructor.
If flexibility is your goal, aim to do at least four yoga sessions a week, each lasting at least 20 minutes, she says. And while all types of yoga will improve flexibility, Thomas likes Yin yoga in particular, "because it encourages you to hold poses for extended periods of time."
Yoga to Make You Stronger
In its physical activity guidelines for Americans, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends strength-training all your major muscle groups twice a week for optimal health.
The gentler, restorative forms of yoga won't necessarily count toward that quota. But if your definition of fitness involves the lean muscles of a toned "yoga body," the more strenuous versions of yoga that emphasize strength-building poses can get you there.
"More advanced styles of yoga, like power yoga and Ashtanga will work your muscles more than gentler styles," Thomas says.
Hatha yoga is typically slower but can also be great for building strength. Case in point: A study published in the January-June 2015 issue of the International Journal of Yoga found that 12 weeks of Hatha yoga improved handgrip and leg strength in a group of Indian Air Force volunteers.
Yoga poses mainly challenge your muscles by having you hold your body in a fixed position. This is known as an isometric contraction, and it involves creating muscle tension without changing the muscle's length or visibly moving the joint.
"In my classes, I tend to hold the warrior and crescent lunge poses for 10 to 15 breaths precisely to build isometric strength," Warloski says.
While isometric exercises won't help you improve speed or athletic performance — just one reason to supplement your yoga practice with other training modalities — they can enhance joint stability, notes the Mayo Clinic. The greater your stability, the better your joints will be able to stay in place during daily activities and exercise. This can help prevent pain and injury.
But again, you have to pay your dues to see strength gains. "Like any program, yoga generally takes four to eight weeks to bring significant results if you're consistent with three days a week of practice," Warloski says. "I have yoga clients tell me they feel looser within a few classes, but to really see strength benefits, you need some time."
Several great strength-building yoga poses include plank, Chaturanga (yoga push-up), Navasana (boat pose), Utkatasana (chair pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (extended side angle) and any of the three warrior poses, says Meggan Berg, CPT, a personal trainer and yoga instructor at Life Time.
You may notice that challenging yoga poses get easier within a few weeks — but as Len Kravitz, PhD, at the University of New Mexico points out, short-term adaptations in strength within the first few weeks are actually a result of neural adaptations in your body. Or to put it another way, your body is learning to work smarter as you push it harder.
Kravitz explains that it usually takes about 16 workouts for the real strength adaptations to kick in. This coincides with the eight-week period that's a typical minimum length of time for studies that examine gains in muscular size, strength or endurance.
Balance Gentle Yoga With Strength Training
If you prefer gentler restorative forms of yoga, consider supplementing your practice with other exercises, so that you can enjoy the full benefits of strength training.
Consider doing weight-training circuits in the gym. challenge yourself with a boot camp class or explore how suspension training can turn your body weight into a strength-training aid — not unlike its function in the more strenuous yoga classes.
It's worth the extra effort to get the strength training in — the many benefits of weight training include not just stronger muscles but stronger bones, reduced symptoms of many chronic conditions, improved quality of life and even better cognition.
One easy way to combine yoga and strength training is to tack a yoga session onto the beginning and/or end of a strength workout. A faster-paced pre-workout yoga practice can help you warm up your muscles, whereas a slow, stretchy post-workout routine gives you the chance to cool down before going about your day.
If you go the pre- or post-workout route, keep your yoga sessions short, Berg says. A 10- to-15-minute routine may be more manageable if you're already doing a separate workout. You can always lengthen your practice time if you want more.
Yoga Results for Weight Loss
What if you're doing yoga for weight loss? Because of the wide variety of yoga styles and their varying intensities, accurate calorie burn estimates are hard to come by.
For example, Harvard Health only offers an estimate for Hatha yoga, a relatively gentle style that reportedly burns between 240 and 356 calories per hour, depending on your body weight. That's about the same rate of calorie burn as walking at 3.5 mph. However, more active yoga styles that get your heart rate high (e.g., Vinyasa, power and Ashtanga) may burn more.
But while creating a calorie deficit by burning more calories than you take in is central to weight-loss success, the weight-loss journey is a complex process — and doing yoga can help encourage some of the most important healthy behaviors.
A 2018 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that young adults who practiced yoga ate more fruits and vegetables and were generally more physically active, while also consuming less fast food and sugary beverages.
Another study, published in 2016 Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, examined the weight-loss journey of 20 women who had lost weight, intentionally or otherwise, by doing yoga. Although it was a small study, it identified five key themes on the impact of yoga for weight loss, including a shift toward healthy eating and the benefit of support within the yoga community.
While yoga may help you lose weight by adding to your calorie deficit, these studies suggest that the weight-loss benefits of yoga may be more mental than physical.
Also, keep in mind: "Weight loss with yoga alone will take longer than if you were incorporating cardio and weight lifting," Thomas says. These modalities tend to burn more calories overall — 540 to 756 calories per hour on the elliptical and 360 to 504 calories per hour for vigorous weight lifting, per Harvard Health Publishing — and may offer the variety you need to keep your exercise routine feeling fresh and interesting.
Wondering how to calculate your calories for weight loss? Download the MyPlate app to do the job and help you track your intake, so you can stay focused and achieve your goals!
Yoga for Body Transformation
But what about the nitty-gritty of how long it takes before yoga starts slimming away excess body fat? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that if you lose weight at a steady pace of 1 to 2 pounds per week, you're more likely to keep it off over the long term. No matter how much yoga you're doing, that's a healthy goal.
If there's some variability in your weight-loss journey, lean into yoga instead of stress. Some exercisers will see faster results in the initial weeks of their weight-loss program, while others might need a few weeks to dial in the combination of physical activity, nutrition and self-care that are the hallmarks of a successful effort to not only lose weight but keep it off long-term.
Doing Heart-Healthy Yoga
Getting in shape can also mean improving your cardiovascular health. The HSS recommends doing a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. They also note that the more active forms of yoga, such as Vinyasa yoga, can count toward the time quota for moderate-intensity activity.
A small July 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health followed 13 physically inactive subjects who were split between high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and continuous intensity exercise training. Both groups showed better cardiac auto-regulation after just two weeks, although it's worth noting that the HIIT group showed significantly more benefits. But ultimately, anything that gets you moving is beneficial.
With that said, it's much more common for studies measuring cardiovascular health to run for 12 weeks (three months) or more. However, if you're diligent in your yoga practice, you'll probably notice the workouts getting easier in less than that time — often as little as a few weeks.
As with strength training, if you prefer the gentler, restorative forms of yoga, they certainly can contribute to good health — but you should supplement your yoga practice with other types of exercise to make sure you meet the HHS guidelines for good health. Walking, swimming, cycling and doing group dance classes are just a few examples of how you can improve your fitness when you're not in the yoga studio.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity: "Yoga's Potential for Promoting Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Behaviors Among Young Adults: A Mixed-Methods Study"
- Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "A Different Weight Loss Experience: A Qualitative Study Exploring the Behavioral, Physical, and Psychosocial Changes Associated With Yoga That Promote Weight Loss"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Losing Weight"
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "The Effects of High-Intensity Interval Training vs. Moderate-Intensity Continuous Training on Heart Rate Variability in Physically Inactive Adults"
- University of New Mexico: "Resistance Training: Adaptations and Health Implications"
- Mayo Clinic: "Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier"