For the yoga novice, the first impression of walking into a yoga studio with your trainers on, your compression gear and sweat towel in hand can leave you feeling slightly like a fish out of water. As you gaze around at the selection of lululemon tights, the funky yoga bag off the shoulder satchel with individual Mambo inspired yoga mat neatly rolled up. The occasional recyclable Paul Green coffee cup and glistening glowing demeanour of healthy vitality inspired people can be a little off putting. Yoga has become a cult. It’s for the individuals who are confident in their choices of being sound and partaking in an exercise regime that has that smug feeling of knowing what ‘Utakasana’ actually means. As you say it and others ‘nod in agreement’ with a knowing glance and understanding audible expressions of ‘oh yes - that one’. A first timer can be forgiven for feeling a little bit intimidated and not a part of the growing 'cognoscenti’.
For many yoga is a mystery. Popularity of yoga has sky-rocketed and in the west more people are doing it than ever before. it’s riding a wave of heraldry that seems to be ever growing as extreme exercise fads discover that yoga can be a perfect balance to extreme workouts and that elusive balance of strength with flexibility.
Now if this all sound cynical and offensive - you are absolutely right. I’m a yoga fan. Have been for years. Love it. Swear by it. And I had my days in the sun of being a yoga devotee who would happily rise at 6am to greet the dawn with a sun salutation series EVERY SINGLE MORNING. I was also a yoga snob! I thought it was the way forward and anyone who wasn’t jumping on the bandwagon didn’t have an opinion on the matter. So when I was sitting down to dinner with my dearest and most wonderful friend (who also happens to be my volleyball coach) and the conversation of ‘does yoga really have benefits’ came about, I harkened back to my days of being a yogi and pretending to know what all the jargon was and every asana’s Indian name as opposed to just calling things an English slang equivalent. Very quickly my friend/coach quickly put me in my place about being opinionated on the matter - I was pretty much forced to take my proverbial silver spoon out of my lower asana!
But in this conversation it was a rather interesting point of ‘does yoga have cardiovascular benefits?’ Can it actually make you a)lose weight and b)get fit cardiovascular (in the true scientific sense of the word). Never one to back down from a good debate, we exchanged concepts of yoga, the hows, whys, wheretofores and benefits along with all the types, genres and specifics of practices that I could muster. But where was my scientific basis? Well - here it is!
THE BASIC PREMISE:
Is yoga Cardiovascular? The scientific answer - NO. Whilst there are many health benefits to yoga postures and to performing yoga ‘asanas’ (poses) that give immense benefits to overall fitness, wellness and health, as a cardiovascular conditioner - yoga is not the most prevalent exercise.
Cardiovascular fitness technically terms the ability of the cardiovascular system to provide oxygenated blood to muscles as well as the ability of muscles and tissues to use oxygen to produce energy for movement. Cardiovascular fitness is usually measured by a VO-2 Max test which requires a controlled clinical testing on a bike ergometer or treadmill measuring the body’s ability to keep oxygen intake at levels above carbon dioxide levels (metabolic acidosis). It can also be measured by the Rockport Walk Test or Three Minute Step test where professionals are testing pulse rates during exercise and more importantly their recovery pulses in agreed time frames and then using calculations to reach an estimated reading.
Yoga doesn’t elevate the heart rate for a sustained period. This fact renders yoga as being anaerobic. Even though there are a broad collection of powerful poses that do elevate heart rates whilst they are being performed or held, these poses are usually held for only up to a minute at a time and thus don’t sustain the elevated heart rate necessary to influence cardiovascular VO-2 max. There are some claims that certain forms of yoga (such as ashtanga/bikram) are more strenuous than others and incorporate more powerful poses that raise the heart rate. Whilst this is true, the maximal output achieved (according to a study in 2006) was only up to 30 beats per minute, the same amount required from gardening, dog walking or vacuuming the house.
There was a second aspect of the conversation that yoga can also have an influence on weight. I mean, you look at those lovely yoga bodies and that striated lean musculature is certainly impressive. Having been around yogi’s I’m always amazed at the particular bodyshape that it does create! However again, here the science proves these claims unfounded. Some studies actually suggest that yoga decreases metabolic rates and thus means you would burn less calories in doing yoga or taking up a yoga practice. As a weight loss format, yoga sucks!
But before I am beaten to a pulp with yoga mats and strung up by straps in a crucifix position by yoga zealots, let me add that yoga has so many other health benefits that are truly advantageous and actually deeply increase your quality of life and fitness. There are so many benefits of yogic practice that influence your flexibility, your muscular tone and strength (as yoga works tendons as well as muscles), as well as direct impact on pain levels in seniors, metabolism, congnition, balance and perhaps most importantly breathing. The ability of the body to be efficient in it’s breath is one of the primary advocates for beginning yogic practice.
In this way, yoga has direct impacts on the efficiency of the body’s cardiovascular system. So many factors of yoga create a more attuned body that can activate resources which directly influence VO-2 max output when you are involved in exercising and aerobic activity. The benefits of recovery that yoga helps with has direct influence on how quickly your 'recovery pulse’ resets.
The research is clear - the benefits of yoga are wide and numerous and there is little argument that a yoga practice would negatively impact on your health and life when it is taught in a safe and considered environment. However as a cardiovascular measure and weight loss technique yoga is not the go to. Right now I believe that my coach is sitting at her desk reading this with a very smug look on her face. But look out for next week’s article where I am will expout the virtues of the yogic practice to all and sundry.
Now please don’t hit me with your lululemon!