6 Ways Yoga Makes You Fit Like No Other Workout


Yoga is often seen as a relaxing and down-regulating practice. However, some advanced poses can be tough. So, if that’s all you do as your exercise model, is it possible that yoga makes you fit?

In general, yoga can make you fit because it builds your strength and challenges your cardiorespiratory system through various asanas. At the same time, it also works on your flexibility, balance, coordination, power, agility, and muscle endurance.

But there is a lot to understand about this question. In addition to seeking the list below, please read my recommendations on how to get fit with yoga.

Getting Fit Through Yoga

Being physically fit has multiple components. It means having the ability to actively perform daily projects and tasks with optimal energy, strength, endurance, and performance. It also means being resilient to any setbacks and situations like stress or tiredness, and be able to recover from them quickly.

So being physically fit is a full-body, full-life experience that is about so much more than just getting in shape. It involves all aspects of life like physical performance, stress, recovery, sleep, circadian rhythms, mood, wellbeing, energy, vitality, and resilience.

Regular yoga practice keeps your mind away from negative thoughts and worries. It helps you be able to stay resilient, psychologically healthy and equipped to learn, grow and solve problems. It requires self-awareness, patience, and mindfulness.

Number #1: Improves muscle endurance

Regular yoga practice creates progressive overload and improves muscle endurance. Muscle endurance means you can do more repetitions of a given exercise in the same amount of time, or you can perform the same amount of repetitions faster than usual.

A study done by Juliana Costa Shiraishi from The University of Brasília documented how does regular yoga practice will impact muscular endurance (source).

25 healthy people (17 females and 5 males), who never done yoga before, particitapetd in 12-week yoga program.

  • 12 weeks time
  • 2 sessions per week
  • 50 minutes per session

Muscle endurance was measured before the 12-week program. It consisted of abdominal strength and upper body strength exercises and was measured by the number of reps each participant (on average) could do. The exercises used for the study haven’t been disclosed.

ExerciseBeforeAfter
Abdominal exercise24 repetitions27 repetitions
Upper body exercise18 repetition22.5 repetition

After the 12-week yoga program, all participants had improvement in their muscular endurance. On average, abdominal exercise improved by 3 repetitions, and upper body exercise improved by 4.5 repetitions.

NOTE: Those numbers were achieved only from two yoga sessions per week.

Number #2: Improves balance

Yoga can improve balance because it involves several poses that require to maintain stability. It has many static unilateral asanas that work on the balance, as well as several complex movement transitions, which involve moving from one position to another.

A study done by Dr. Erick Tadeu Prado from The Anhanguera University in Sao Paulo, Brazil documented police academy students who practiced yoga for 5 months and its effect on balance (source).

  • 5 months time
  • 3 sessions per week
  • 60 minutes per session

The balance was measured with Balance Rehabilitation Unit (BRU™) posturography. Balance Rehabilitation Unit is considered as the gold standard in measuring stability and balance (source).

It consisted of four tests:

  • four position (standing barefoot with one foot elevated and crossed on the knee of the leg that is supporting the weight of the body).
  • plane (standing barefoot with one leg supporting the body and the other extended parallel to the ground).
  • flamingo (standing on a wooden beam while standing barefoot, with one foot resting and the knee of the other leg flexed).
  • hopscotch (skipping back and forth on one foot without switching and without losing balance).

The tests measure how much time participants can maintain in the position.

TestBeforeAfter
four position15.6 seconds31.7 seconds
plane8.3 seconds18.1 seconds
flamingo3.7 seconds5 seconds
hopscotch27.8 seconds48.9 seconds

After the 5-month yoga program, all participants had significant improvements in their balance. On average, four position test improved by 16.1 seconds, plane test improved by 9.8 seconds, flamingo test improved by 1.3 seconds and hopscotch improved by 21.1 seconds.

NOTE: None of the police academy students were doing yoga prior to this study.

Does Yoga Make You Physically Fit?

In general, yoga does make you physically fit because it involves all aspects of physical fitness like strength, flexibility, muscle endurance, and cardio. It also makes you more mindful, resilient, mentally healthy, less stressed, and more self-aware.

I don’t think you can get that from treadmills or ellipticals.

First time I was doing yoga I was brutally tight. And I immediately realized that this is exactly what I need. I’ve spent many years behind the desk, reading books and doing everything that a regular science geek does. So when I’ve tried yoga first time, I was hooked.

Number #3: Improves strength

You can get stronger with yoga because it requires a lot of strength in your arms, legs, and core to be able to perform some of the asanas. Even advanced yoga students can progressively push themselves by introducing harder and more complex asanas.

A study done by Dr. Neha P. Gothe from The Wayne State University in Detroit documented 118 healthy adults who participated in the 8-week yoga program and its effects on muscle strength (source).

  • 8 week time
  • 3 sessions per week
  • 60 minutes each session

The program was designed for beginners with progression over the 8 week time. Muscle strength was measured before the 8-week program. It consisted of arm curls and chair stands and was measured by the number of reps each participant (on average) could do.

ExerciseBeforeAfter
Arm curl16 repetitions20 repetitions
Chair stands11 repetition14 repetition

After the 8-week yoga program, all participants had improvement in their muscular strength. On average, arm curl exercise improved by 4 repetitions, and chair stand exercise improved by 3 repetitions.

NOTE: In this study the average age of the participants were 62 with no prior experience in yoga.

Which Yoga Is Best For Strength?

Vinyasa yoga, Ashtanga yoga, and Power yoga are the most challenging styles that build strength. The sequence in each of those styles of yoga is focused on energizing and athletic moves that build upper body strength, power, flexibility, and balance.

The best yoga for strength is Ashtanga yoga. It includes the sequence of 66 asanas and 35 vinyasas between each asana. Every vinyasa requires jumping, downward-facing dog, upward-facing dog, and chaturanga that build strength in the upper body and lower body.

What I like about Ashtanga yoga is that you can really work your arms and shoulders. It has several positions where you need to stay on your arms and catch the balance at the same time.

Here are 5 best yoga poses that can build up your strength:

  • Handstand
  • Boat pose
  • Crane pose
  • Dragonfly pose
  • Bow pose

Ashtanga Yoga is considered to be the most challenging of all yoga styles because of the breathing/moving vinyasa system. Each pose flows into the next accompanied by the cycles of inhalation and exhalation. So you never hold your breath and you’re constantly moving.

Can Yoga Make You Lean?

In general, if you practice yoga regularly it will give you a lean body. It strengthens your core, legs, arms, and shoulders as well as improves your body composition and fitness level. One hour of hatha yoga burns between 230 kcal to 340 kcal, depending on your body weight.

Number #4: Improves your body composition

Doing yoga can make you lean and toned. Just like any other physical activity it does burn a lot of calories and builds muscle mass. Doing regular yoga where you challenge yourself daily together with a high protein diet can give you a lean body and help to maintain a lean physique.

Is yoga enough to get lean? For some people, yoga is enough to get lean. Studies show that regular yoga practice stimulates muscle protein synthesis similar to resistance training, which impacts body composition and it can be an alternative model for maintaining muscle mass.

A study done by Dr. Indranil Manna from Midnapore College in West Bengal, India, documented 60 healthy adults participating in an intense 12-week yoga training program and its effects on fitness and body composition (source).

  • 12 week time
  • 6 sessions per week
  • 60 minutes per session

Body composition was measured before the 12-week program. It used skinfold calipers that measured the thickness of the skin in millimeters taken from four different sites of the body (biceps, triceps, subscapular, and suprailiac).

MeasurementBeforeAfter
Body fat percentage14.1 %10.4 %
Body fat mass7.9 kg6.4 kg

After the 12-week intense 6 days a week yoga program, all participants had significant improvement in their body composition. On average, body fat percentage decreased by 3.7%, and body fat mass decreased by 1.5 kg.

NOTE: In this study, there had no nutritional intervention. This means with the additional support of a high protein diet there could be even better results.

Number #5: Improves your cardiovascular fitness

Yoga practice makes you improve your cardiovascular system by working your entire body in a way that challenges your breathing, heart rate, and conditioning at the same time. Some forms of yoga are calmer and slow-paced, where others involve rigorous asanas that get you out of breath.

What I like about yoga is that it can be modified.

In fact, yoga is one of the easiest ways to stay fit because it gets smoother as you carry on week by week. It can be modified regardless if you’re just getting started or you’re an advanced student. Some forms of yoga include high-intensity elements that positively impact the cardiovascular system.

A study done by Dr. Marian E. Papp from the Karolinska Institutet in Huddinge, Sweden, documented the effects of high-intensity yoga on cardiovascular fitness, perceived exertion, heart rate, and heart rate recovery (source).

  • 6 weeks time
  • 1 session per week
  • 60 minutes per session

Cardiovascular fitness to estimate VO2max was measured before the 6-week program by using the Cooper walk/run test.

MeasurementBeforeAfter
Cooper test (maximal oxygen consumption) (mL/kg per min)37.337.5
Resting Heart Rate (beats/min)81.679.6

After the 6-week one day a week yoga program, all participants showed some improvements in their cardiovascular fitness. On average, maximal oxygen consumption improved by 0.2 mL/kg and resting heart rate decreased by 2.0 beats per minute.

NOTE: Those results were after one 60 minute session of yoga per week.

Number #6: Improves your muscle flexibility

Yoga can make you more flexible and mobile because it works by lengthening muscles and restoring optimal range of motion in the joints. Stretching the muscles reclaims their length-tension relationship and releases tensions, which positively impact joint mobility.

A study by Dr. M Jay Polsgrove from the North-Eastern Illinois University in Chicago documented the effect of a 10-week yoga program on the group of 14 people. The goal of this study was to assess the changes in flexibility (source).

  • 10 week time
  • 2 sessions per week
  • 60 minutes per session

Flexibility was measured before the 10-week program. It consisted of sit and reach test, shoulder flexibility test measured with inches.

TestBeforeAfter
Sit and reach test21.4 inches23.1 inches
Shoulder flexibility test-0.10.7

After the 10-week twice day a week yoga program, all participants showed significant improvements in flexibility. On average, sit and reach test improved by 1.8 inches, and the shoulder flexibility test improved by 0.8 inches.

NOTE: All participants were active baseball athletes who regularly performed weight training and running. The control group (groups that haven’t done yoga) noticed a significant decrease in both flexibility tests.

How Does Yoga Help You Stay In Shape?

What I like about yoga is that it can be relaxing or stimulating. You can use it to go easy at the end of the day, or you can push yourself and treat it as your main workout.

Yoga can make you stay in shape because several poses require significant effort and strength to be able to perform and maintain each position. Arm balancing, core poses, backbends, prone poses, and inversions all call for abdominal and upper body strength.

Depending on the type of yoga you do, typical session with include:

  • Standing poses
  • Seated poses
  • Core poses
  • Backbend poses
  • Arm balancing poses
  • Inversion poses
  • Prone poses

So in one session you basically tick all of the boxes. You challenge your muscles, joints, and tendons in a healthy and natural way.

How Do I Get Fit With Yoga?

  • Do it in the morning. I like to start my day from 5-8 minutes of yoga to stretch out the anxiety and kick start the parasympathetic response. It will relax your body, mind and get you positive for the day. On the other hand, if I don’t do it, my brain feels cloudy.
  • Start small. 10-20 minutes of daily practice is enough to get started. It’s not about doing one single session once a week. It’s about small doses and responses. You can break this down into two sessions. One morning and one evening.
  • Start from the basics. When I did my Yoga Teacher Training in Rishikesh, my teacher taught me that the most important part is the beginning (sun salutation). If you can master this simple sequence, everything else will be easier.
  • Focus on the behavior. Don’t be driven by the performance. It’s not about burning calories, doing more reps, or reaching further. Relax and focus on how you feel. If you’re more relaxed, you will immediately make better movement and nutritional choices.
  • Challenge yourself. Try to be creative and find a way to challenge yourself each session. It can be as simple as one position that you’ve never done before.
  • Use liquid chalk. I love to do a lot of kettlebell work so I use chalk quite a bit. But recently I’ve used chalk on my hands to get a better grip on downward-facing dogs. It was a game-changer. It allows me to get a far better stretch.
  • Don’t get obsessed with practice. You don’t have to become a “yogi” to practice yoga. You can be you, feel better, and have more energy for the things you love to do, without being an absolute zealot about yoga.

Conclusion

You can get stronger with yoga from several angles. Being fir and strong doesn’t always mean lift more weights. It means being able to stay active and have energy for all the things you do during the day.

You don’t do yoga to be better at yoga. You do yoga to be better at life.

In other words, it’s about the practice and the long game. It’s about being fit now and finding the routine that will keep you getting stronger, mobile, and prevent injury.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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