Yoga for Exercise

A group of people practicing yoga on mats in a studio

Yoga began not as a form of physical exercise, but as a practice to achieve spiritual enlightenment and mental discipline. It originated in India about 5,000 years ago, first appearing in religious texts recorded by priests. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit “Yuj,” meaning “to yoke” or “to unite,” which conveys the goal of connecting the mind, body, and spirit through breathing, meditation, and poses. Yoga did not appear in the U.S. until the late 1800s, where it evolved to place greater emphasis on physical fitness through poses and postures (asanas) and breathing techniques (pranayama) than on spirituality and meditation (dhyana). Some estimates suggest that 300 million people worldwide practice yoga. There are more than a dozen styles of yoga, but most combine poses and movements with breathing exercises and relaxation. Some types incorporate meditation.

Popular Types of Yoga in the U.S.

  • Hatha. This includes a mix of styles that focuses on balance, strength, flexibility, breathing, and meditation. The practice tends to be less vigorous, so that beginners to yoga might start here.
  • Vinyasa. Also referred to as “flow yoga” or “vinyasa flow,” this more vigorous style emphasizes breathing in a specific way that matches the flowing movements of the poses. The movements are continuous, moving from one sequence to the next, and therefore it can raise the heart rate and body temperature.
  • Ashtanga. This type is highly structured, with specific poses taught in six rounds with increasing difficulty. It is a vigorous and faster paced yoga with one pose flowing into the next, and may include a spiritual component. Music is not typically used and a class can last from 90 minutes to two hours. Students are encouraged to move at their own pace but to also challenge themselves.
  • Kundalini. This type focuses primarily on “life force energy” also referred to as “prana,” or the Chinese term “chi.” It includes movements that stimulate energy to reduce stress and negative thoughts. A mantra (a statement to help focus thoughts) is introduced, followed by breathing exercises and progressive poses. Meditation and chanting or singing are sometimes included.
  • Bikram. This type uses high heat to promote sweating and to relax the muscles quickly and increase circulation. The room temperature is set to 95-104 F, with a humidity of about 40%. Similar to ashtanga yoga, the sessions include a specific sequence of poses and last for about 90 minutes.
  • Iyengar. This style strongly emphasizes proper alignment of the body throughout the practice, and holds poses for longer durations. Yoga props like blocks, bolsters, straps, chairs, and even a wall are used to help achieve alignment if a student has an injury, lacks range of motion, or is weak in a specific body part. It is usually a slower-paced style with instructors paying close attention to and correcting their students’ form, making it a good choice for a beginner or those with injuries.
  • Yin. This style moves at a slower pace and focuses on holding each pose for an extended time, up to 5 minutes. This stretch-based yoga style helps to release tension and increase blood circulation to the joints like the knees, hips, shoulder, neck, and ankles. It increases flexibility and promotes relaxation.
a person helping another practice aerial yoga in a hammock

Westernized variations of yoga

These more advanced practices blend aspects of yoga with other exercise formats to elevate the heart rate and offer a wider range of movement. They are not recommended for people new to yoga unless under close supervision.
  • Power. This is typically a blend of vinyasa flow and ashtanga yoga. The types of poses and the pace will vary depending on the instructor. The quicker pace and challenging poses increase the heart rate, improve flexibility, and strengthen all the major muscle groups. It tends to have less of a spiritual or meditative component.
  • Aerial. This style uses traditional yoga poses performed in a hammock that hangs from the ceiling. The hammock offers support with inverted poses like headstands and challenges one’s balance.
  • Acro. This style combines yoga and acrobatics. It incorporates traditional poses with the use of a partner. One individual has contact with the ground, usually lying down, and the other is lifted off the ground. There is also a third person to watch the pair, ensuring safety with the lifts. This format can be vigorous and develops strength, flexibility, balance, and technique.
  • HIIT. High intensity interval training is a format that has topped the list of fitness trends every year ranked by the American College of Sports Medicine. [1] HIIT involves short bursts of high intensity bouts of exercise followed by a short rest period. Because of the higher intensity, the duration of a class is shorter around 20-30 minutes. HIIT yoga adopts this concept by incorporating HIIT movements such as jumps and plyometrics with traditional asanas and short rest periods, concluding with a stretch and cool-down. The pace is faster than other formats.

Yoga and Health

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults, including those with chronic conditions, aim for 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity weekly. [2] More vigorous forms of yoga can reach an aerobic level by increasing the heart rate, but all yoga forms can provide physical and mental health benefits. It may complement other exercise formats, as the poses and postures increase flexibility, balance, and strength, all of which can help reduce the risk of injury. The focus on breathing and relaxation helps to lower anxiety and depression, and to increase mental clarity and focus. Because of these effects, yoga has become increasingly popular as a therapeutic method. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, yoga is the most commonly used complementary health approach in adults, particularly in non-Hispanic white women. [3] About half of American yoga practitioners reported starting yoga to improve their health. [4] Another 14 million American adults said that yoga had been recommended to them by a physician or therapist. [5]

Research has shown a beneficial effect of yoga for many chronic diseases, but most of the studies are of low quality so it is hard to make definitive conclusions. Yet because of the varying levels of yoga available that can accommodate beginners and those with injuries, yoga may be an exercise option for those who have not been able to follow other recommended physical activity regimens. [5]

Safety

Fitness forms of yoga, like other exercises, carry with it the risk of injury. For example, Bikram yoga performed in high heat may increase the risk of dehydration or even heat stroke in some individuals. Inverted poses like headstands have been associated with headache and worsening glaucoma. [14] Jumping into a power yoga or 2-hour ashtanga yoga class for the first time is clearly risky, but so is taking a class without a well-trained and experienced yoga instructor.

A meta-analysis of 94 randomized controlled trials that included information on yoga safety found that the practice was generally safe and not associated with a greater rate of adverse events compared with other exercise formats. [24] However, the authors noted wide variation in the trials, such as the study durations and type of yoga practiced (which can vary greatly in intensity and difficulty). A cross-sectional survey of 1,702 yoga practitioners found that 1 in 5 reported at least one adverse effect, most commonly associated with headstands and shoulder stands. The risk was higher in those with chronic illnesses and those practicing through self-study without supervision. Yet when comparing the rate of adverse effects per total hours practiced, yoga was found to be as safe or safer when compared with other exercise types. [25]

A formal credential is not required to teach a yoga class, though most studios and gyms in the U.S. require some form of certification. A Certified Yoga Teacher (CYT) indicates a certification from a yoga school, although yoga schools are not regulated and the quality of instruction may vary. A Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) is registered with the Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit professional membership organization that developed their own compliance and education standards. They list both teachers and training programs (Registered Yoga Schools, or RYS) that meet their standards. An RYT-200 title indicates that the instructor has completed at least 200 hours of training at a RYS, and RYT-500, 500 hours. An instructor lacking a formal yoga credential does not necessarily mean the instructor is not qualified to teach, as they may have several years of yoga training and experience in a format that did not provide a credential. In this case, one may view an instructor’s bio or resume to see where they have trained and for how long they have been teaching. Word of mouth about good quality teachers can also be useful.

  • If you are new to yoga, always start with a beginner-level class. If the description does not specify this, ask the instructor or studio before you sign up. A beginner class will introduce the most common yoga movements and how to execute them properly. This will prepare you for more advanced styles.
  • Although certain styles of yoga are traditionally slower-paced with more basic poses, there can be wide variability depending on the instructor. Introduce yourself to the instructor at your first class, and inform them of any injuries or physical weaknesses you may have.

Accessibility

  • The cost of yoga classes varies. Fitness centers such as YMCAs may offer yoga classes included in the membership fee. Independent yoga studios may charge from $10-$20 per 1 to 1.5 hour class; some offer a monthly community class discounted as low as $5. Private one-on-one or small group yoga sessions may range from $30-$70 per hour. Free online video classes such as those available through YouTube may save money and provide access to high-quality instructors, but this format lacks the watchful eye of an instructor who can provide guidance on proper alignment and modifications based on one’s body type and abilities. Without this, the risk of injury may increase. During the pandemic, some yoga instructors offered live virtual classes (e.g., Zoom) in which they could monitor their students and provide verbal cues, but this lacked the hands-on correction of a student’s form if needed. Additional costs include accessories like yoga mats, yoga blocks, and other assistive aids, although most gyms and studios provide these free of charge.
  • Yoga in the U.S. is most commonly practiced among non-Hispanic white, college-educated, female adults. [26] Research on yoga and health shows potential physical and mental health benefits, but racial and ethnic minorities may lack access to this practice. Barriers include a perceived difficulty level and high cost of classes, clothing, and equipment. Household demands, work schedules, lack of childcare, and lack of transportation to classes are other potential barriers. Offering low-cost or subsidized yoga classes at beginner levels, at various times of day (early morning, evening, weekends), and at local community centers while providing childcare may help address some of these issues.

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