by Chrys Kub, M.S. P.T. & Stephanie Adams
Does yoga increase fitness as well as other types of exercise do? The answer is yes, if done within certain parameters. For example, in a study conducted looking at physiological changes in adult women, researchers looked at the short-term effects of four weeks of intensive yoga practice in six healthy adult female volunteers measured using the maximal exercise treadmill test. Yoga practice involved daily morning and evening sessions of 90 minutes each. In this group, the maximal workout increased by 21%, oxygen consumption per unit of work decreased, demonstrating an increase in cardiorespiratory efficiency.3 In another study, a comparison was made between the effects of yoga and the effects of physical exercise in athletes. This inquest focused on the effect of pranayama (controlled breathing). This study was a well-done investigation which lasted for two years, examining a control group and an experimental group. The results showed that the subjects who practiced pranayama could achieve higher work rates with reduced oxygen consumption per unit work than the control group, and without an increase in blood lactate levels.4 In a study conducted which looked at aerobic capacity and perceived exertion after practice of Hatha yogic exercises, investigators found that the practice of Hatha yogic exercises helps to improve aerobic capacity like the practice of conventional exercises (PT). The yoga group practiced yoga for one hour every morning (six days a week) for six months. Interestingly, the yoga group performed better than the PT group in terms of lower ratings of perceived exertion after exhaustive exercise5, bringing in the mind-body connection which is so unique to yoga.
What about the other parameters of fitness? In a study performed at the University of California at Davis, students performed eight weeks of yoga training after which muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition and lung function was tested. Each week, the students attended four sessions in which they performed 10 minutes of pranayama (breathing), 15 minutes of warm-up exercises, 50 minutes of asanas (yoga poses), and 10 minutes of relaxation. Significant improvements were noted in muscular strength (31%), muscular endurance (57%), flexibility (up to 188%), and VO2max (7%). Other studies reviewed by our resources indicated increases in respiratory efficiency and competence, cardiovascular efficiency and competence, and decreases in oxygen consumption.
So, can participants become “fit” if they just do yoga? Well, that depends. As one can note by looking at the few studies described above, these positive results came only after practicing yoga according to certain guidelines. Studies have included more than an hour of practice at least two to fours days a week. The yoga sessions included breath work in addition to the typical yoga poses. The asanas included Sun Salutations and challenging standing and balancing poses. Flow yoga was designed is just this way. At FLOW yoga, the instructors follow a vinyasa style yoga that trains the body to increase physical endurance by flowing through the poses. The mind also is being trained to stay focused for the duration of the class. Vinyasa links poses together flowing with the breath, in order to increase strength and endurance. Of course, the practitioner needs to practice several times a week, for at least 60 minute sessions, to incur the benefits proven so far by scientific studies. If one is able to do this, not surprisingly, the fitness benefits fall in line with the benefits achieved by other forms of exercise.
The content of the class must also be quite vigorous. Dee Ann Birkel, an emeritus professor at Ball State’s School of Physical Education, and others point out that the Sun Salutations and other continuous linked poses increase the heart rate, making yoga aerobically challenging. Also, the sustained isometric contractions required of the large and small muscle groups in standing poses increase strength. The concentric and eccentric work required to move in and out of poses in a controlled manner lifting our own body weight and the weight of our limbs serves also to increase our strength.2 Balance poses require co-activation of our core stabilizing muscles, increasing stability and strength throughout our trunk. Practicing a flowing style of yoga will increase their fitness levels, as long as they practice yoga according to established study guidelines.
The more esoteric meaning of “hatha” is symbolic of balance. “Ha” means sun and “tha” means moon. The balance of “ha” and “tha” energies is the desired result of a hatha yoga practice. “Sun” energy is more fiery, strong, masculine, and active. “Moon” energy is more relaxed, grounded, feminine, stable and passive. By combining functional strength and functional flexibility you achieve physiological balance. “Flow” or vinyasa yoga also provides cardiovascular benefits.
Can vinyasa flow yoga help with medical conditions?,Yoga has been recommended for the prevention and treatment of many medical conditions. Valid studies have shown that yoga may reduce or eliminate symptoms of asthma, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and carpal tunnel syndrome.13, 14, 16, 17 There is some preliminary evidence that yoga can be helpful when it is practiced in addition to standard treatments for several conditions. These conditions include anxiety disorders or stress, asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease and depression.9,11,13 Early studies also note that yoga may improve posture in children. Also, it has been found that yoga may reduce the intensity and frequency of tension or migraine headaches, decreasing the need for pain-relieving drugs.2
Is yoga just another form of fitness?No. Yoga is so much more than fitness, if you want it to be. Yoga is a great stress reducer and mind body practice. Considering that some estimates indicate the 60% of all doctor visits are stress-related, more than ever, we need tools to help us learn to find our inner strength, stability and center.
The postures are able to assist in balancing the autonomic nervous system. This allows the body to be less “reactive” to changes in stress levels, or even vigorous exercise resulting in a calmer, less anxious physiological environment. Joan Harrington, PhD, states that based on study results, one can reasonably assume that fewer psychosomatic complaints will manifest in regular yoga practitioners. This is due to the direct manipulation of the muscles and viscera, the autonomic nerve system balance and the decreased anxiety.11 In fact, in a study investigating physiological changes after 3 months of training in yoga, investigators found that practicing yoga resulted in decreased autonomic arousal and more psycho physiological relaxation (heart rate and respiratory rate reduction) in the 40 subjects studied.12 In studies reviewed by Ralph LaForge, M.S., he found that in selected clinical trials using Hatha Yoga as therapy they found decreased resting blood pressure, increased parasympathetic tone, reduced physiological and psychological response to threat and improvement in baroreflex function/sensitivity. This are all indications of the body’s improvement in regulating reactions through the autonomic nervous system. Yoga may also affect levels of brain or blood chemicals, including melatonin and stress hormones. 13
Through literature review of studies performed, Joan Harrington, PhD, found that studies showed that yoga can facilitate personality change. Yoga is highly effective in dealing with psychosomatic complaints and enhancing the feelings one may have of well-being. Participants are able to improve their feelings of physical health, reduce their anxiety, and enhance their self-concepts and emotional tone.
As Elliot S. Dacher, MD, author of Whole Healing: A Step-by-Step Program to Reclaim Your Power to Heal wrote, “Yoga is a way to get to the source of ourselves. The challenge is not to see yoga as a treatment for disease, but as an opportunity to see something deeper in the self. To reconnect with the body is one way of artfully facing the reality of pain in our life and a means for accepting and being in our lives more deeply.”
According to Stephanie, “Yoga can be a positive transformational tool for change. By taking time out of our busy lives a few times a week to focus on breathing and movement, we train our minds and bodies to react differently to circumstances in our lives. We let go of competition, judgment and expectations. We learn to better accept ourselves and others. Yoga can be a powerful tool for positive change by increasing our awareness of how we live, the decisions we make, and ultimately teaching us to live our lives with health, balance, and amazing joy. We are so pleased to be sharing the gift of yoga and friendship with the amazing community of Hood River.”
REFERENCES AND ADDITIONAL RESOURCES(1) Mukunda Stiles, Structural Yoga Therapy: (Boston: WeiserBooks, 2000), 75.
(2) Alisa Bauman, “Is Yoga Enough to Keep you Fit?” (article on-line) Yoga Journal, (September/October 2002, accessed 22 June 2003); available from http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/739_1.cfm: Internet.
(3) Raju PS and others, “Influence of intensive yoga training on physiological changes in adult women: a case report,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 3 (3) (1997 Fall) : 291.
(4) Raju PS and others, “Comparison of effects of yoga and physical exercise in athletes,” Indian Journal of Medical Research (100) (1994 Aug): 81.
(5) Ray US and others, “Aerobic capacity and perceived exertion after practice of Hatha yogic exercises,” Indian Journal of Medical Research (114) (2001 Dec): 215.
(6) Tran MD and others, “Effects of Hatha Yoga Practice on Health-Related Aspects of Physical Fitness,” Prevention in Cardiology 4 (4) (2001 Autumn): 165.
(7) Sahrmann, Shirley A., PhD, PT, FAPTA, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes. (St. Louis: Mosby, Inc. 2002), 27.
(8) Coulter, H. David, PhD, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga. (Honesdale, PA: Body and Breath, Inc. 2001), 591.
(9) Ralph La Forge, M.S., “Physiology of Hatha Yoga in Health and Disease,” lecture given at the ACSM Health and Fitness Summit, 9 April 2003.
(10) Yoko Yoshikawa, “Everybody Upside Down,” (article on-line) Yoga Journal,(September/October 2000, accessed 10 May 2003); available from http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/214.cfm. Internet.
(11) Joan Harrington, PhD. (Arpita), “Physiological and Psychological effects of Hatha Yoga: A Review of the Literature,” Research Bulletin, (Honesdale, PA: Himalayan Institute, 1983), vol. 5, nos. I and II, p.38-39.
(12) Telles S and others, “Physiological changes in sports teachers following 3 months of training in Yoga,” Indian Journal of Medical Research 47 (10) (1993 Oct): 235.