Is Yoga Alone a Good Enough Form of Exercise?
When you imagine a yoga class, chances are you might picture rows of mats topped by people resting in Child's Pose or Savasana. Depending on the particular style, however, the flows go far beyond those sleep-promoting positions and can actually get your heart really pumping.
But can a dedicated yoga practice really deliver all of your health-promoting and longevity-boosting needs? We spoke to fitness pros to find out.
What Is Yoga?
"Yoga is one of my favorite forms of exercise simply because it is accessible to pretty much anyone," says Tamara Teragawa, an instructor for YogaSix in Los Angeles and an XPRO for Xponential+. "Since there are several different styles of yoga, every individual can find one that works for their body and attain specific goals."
You might see yoga classes listed under one of these major categories:
- Vinyasa, an athletic flow
- Hatha, generally slower-paced and great for beginners
- Iyengar, in which poses are held for long periods of time
- Kundalini, equal parts spiritual and mental with invigorating poses set to matching breathwork and/or mantras
- Ashtanga, which starts with a series of sun salutations and moves on to a sequence of challenging standing and floor moves
- Bikram, a sequence of 26 poses performed in a sauna-like room
- Yin, a slower, seated style that takes advantage of gravity to help settle into the stretches
- Restorative, designed to help unwind through long, slow, relaxing poses
- Anusara, similar to Hatha with a goal to open the heart
"Yoga is great to incorporate into your schedule, whether you are just starting out your fitness journey, recovering or preventing injuries or other health issues, or to cross train with other modalities of exercise," Teragawa adds, such as Nordic walking, cycling, running, resistance training or even gardening.
Why Yoga Is Such a Great Form of Exercise
Before we dive into the physical benefits, let's not gloss over the mental health benefits of yoga. Dozens of studies have proven that yoga improves cognition, lowers stress levels, can help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression and increases the likelihood of scoring restful sleep. (Discover even more proven ways yoga can help extend and improve your life.)
Now on to the body benefits: Research shows that regular yoga reduces chronic inflammation, which can slash risk for several of the most common killers in America (including heart disease and cognitive decline). Depending on the style, it can also build muscle. One 2012 study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine determined that after eight months, women who did an hour of Ashtanga yoga twice each week were able to lift more weights with their lower bodies than their non-yogi peers. Earlier research in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that core and upper body strength and endurance can improve after six weeks of classes.
Because it's low-impact and nearly infinitely adaptable to suit people of all fitness and flexibility levels, Teragawa says that "yoga can simultaneously increase both muscular strength and mobility while also helping to reduce stress." And since yoga is low-impact and more gentle on the body than, say, running or strenuous strength training, "it allows people to practice yoga consistently and more often. Personally, I enjoy some form of yoga pretty much every day. However, not everyone can make that happen or will even enjoy that! The amount one should do yoga is really up to the individual and their personal goals. The more consistent you can be, the more progress and benefits you will see."
Can Yoga Alone Cover My Exercise Needs?
With all of that in mind, if we do step up our sequences to nearly every day, will it actually help us meet the exercise recommendations for health and longevity?
As a refresher, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults rack up each week:
- At least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, or
- 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or
- A combo platter of the two options above
"Preferably, aerobic activity should be spread throughout the week, and you can gain additional health benefits by engaging in more above and beyond that," says Jacque Crockford, an ACE certified yoga instructor, personal trainer and health coach in San Diego. (Psst … only 20% of Americans meet this mark now, so getting up to that goal is a phenomenal accomplishment and place to start, especially if you're new to exercise.) "Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits," says Crockford.
If you're just beginning your yoga practice, Teragawa suggests slotting in several shorter sessions multiple times a week over one long session once or twice each week: "This will help you develop more consistency and get into the habit of recognizing how to honor yourself based on what your body needs each day. If you can make time to practice yoga at least three to five times per week, even if it's only for 30 minutes, most people will begin to reap the health benefits of their practice."
Scroll back up to that list of yoga styles and compare the recommendations to the benefits of certain types of yoga, you'll see that if you choose wisely, it is absolutely possible to check all of your boxes for the exercise requirements for health.
"Even if yoga is the only form of physical activity someone engages in, a Hatha or Vinyasa-style practice every day for a minimum of 30 minutes would likely meet the minimum recommendations," Crockford says.
But if your goals go beyond base-level fitness, you might need to consider sprinkling in other forms of exercise. (ICYMI, micro workouts three times per day can boost fat metabolism by 43%!)
Yoga can be considered "enough" of a workout, "but with the exception of sculpt-style classes, yoga typically does not address pulling strength of the muscles, developing fast-twitching muscles or adding progressive overload when it comes to strength training," Teragawa explains. "I am also a strong believer in adding variety to your workout regimen to avoid plateauing and to help decrease the chances of injury, so these are also things to consider when deciding whether or not you would like to make yoga your only form of working out."
If weight loss is your goal you'll also want to step things up, Crockford adds. (As you do so, keep in mind that physical activity alone, not weight loss, should be the main motivation behind any training regimen.)
"If the goal is to lose weight solely through strenuous physical activity and they are practicing Yin yoga, which is very relaxing and restorative, it may not be effective for that client," she says, since they need to burn more calories or adjust their diet to see a shift on the scale. "But if a client is interested in improving flexibility, awareness, reducing stress, increasing strength and endurance, then regularly practicing a Vinyasa style of yoga might be incredibly effective. There are a lot of factors at play but the short answer is yes, yoga is a great tool for anyone to use as part of a balanced training program."
4 Ways to Make the Most of Your Yoga Workouts
No matter what your goals are, these tips from Teragawa and Crockford will make it easier—and far more enjoyable—to keep calm and flow on.
1. Make it a habit.
"Regular yoga can help you develop better mobility and strength, quicker and more efficiently, simply by establishing a solid yoga schedule. In addition to the physical benefits, consistency will help reveal the mental, emotional and overall wellness benefits even more," Teragawa says. Five half-hour sessions per week or more should be the ultimate aim if yoga is your main form of exercise.
2. Get an assist.
"Many people are under the impression that props in yoga are for those who 'can't,' which makes people feel they are not good enough and allows the ego to convince us not to use them. This is a common misconception, though! Yoga props can oftentimes not only help make yoga poses more accessible, but even more challenging at times. Honor where their body is each day," Teragawa says. Employ things like blocks and straps to help develop your yoga practice safely and eventually to help you progress more deeply into postures.
3. Try something new.
This could be a change in location, time of day or the instructor, Crockford advises. "Adding variety will make it easier to avoid a plateau and will keep things fresh. It can also add a different perspective on things, as each teacher has their own style and way of instructing postures and transitions," Teragawa says. If you don't belong to a studio, consider joining a virtual class from your local or any global gym, download an app like Down Dog, try this at-home yoga sequence to improve strength and flexibility or stream a free YouTube class from Yoga with Adriene.
4. Listen to your body.
"Yoga on one day may not look or feel like the same thing on the next day. Give yourself some grace by allowing your body to be your guide to know how and in what poses it's appropriate to challenge yourself. This creates awareness, which is important both on and off the mat," Crockford says. Instead of simply copying everything an instructor is telling you to do, notice how it feels in your body and recognize what you may want to adjust to truly honor where you and your body are at in that moment, Teragawa continues.
The Bottom Line
If you're curious about whether yoga is a good enough workout, the answer is "yes, if …" Keep in mind that you'll want to find a practice that you'll enjoy committing to for at least 30 minutes, five days per week, that you'll be able to stick with consistently, and that gets your heart pumping and challenges your muscles. Do all of the above and your body and brain will thank you.
"The effectiveness of a yoga practice is based on your goals and mindset. Yoga is not a form of fitness that will get you results extremely quickly, but rather, the process and consistency will help you learn about your body and train your mind," Teragawa says.