There are many reasons why you may begin a yoga practice. Some know that yoga is effective at reducing stress, clearing your mind, enhancing your spiritual practice, and improving mindful living. But can a yoga practice just be for physical fitness?
Yes, of course. Yoga is a resourceful tool and holds components of fitness within its wide spectrum of benefits. Let’s take a look at a brief history of yoga and how it developed into a physical practice, examine the components of fitness, then the components of fitness in the yoga practice.
Brief History of Yoga
Yoga wasn’t always a form of exercise. It is an ancient philosophy that dates back at least 3,000 years (maybe more). It was first taught by Vedic Priests to royal scholars about living a healthy and fulfilling life. The scriptural lessons described methods for living an enlightened life and having a deeper connection with the Divine.
It was many centuries later that what we know as “yoga” became a physical practice. In its evolution, yoga moved from an intellectual learning experience to one that included the entire body. Breathing exercises and physical movements introduced a more comprehensive way to embrace the philosophy of yoga.
The physical practice of yoga also made it more accessible to more people, broadening the audience receiving these lessons of enlightenment.
These ideas of yoga were eventually brought to the Western world to continue the spread of this ancient philosophy. The modern era of yoga gained momentum during the health and fitness craze in the early 1980s. People were flocking to gyms and fitness centers to take dance aerobics, Jazzercise classes, and other physical fitness activities.
Yoga became an attractive form of exercise during this time because it incorporated movements and postures that complemented the fitness scene. Yoga was seen as a dynamic stretching class that appealed to the fitness crowd. We continue to see yoga classes in gyms and health clubs today.
They come in many forms and styles, but the foundational principles of the ancient yoga lessons are still embedded in the practice.
Components of Fitness
When it comes to fitness, it can be broken down into several components based on the goals and intentions of the individual:
- Cardiovascular endurance
- Muscular strength building
- Muscular endurance
In exercise routines in which you breathe more rapidly and your heart rate increases, this is related to cardiovascular activity. The word implies that more blood and oxygen are pumping to and away from the heart to sustain the physical exercise. This helps to produce more energy in the body.
Hopping on the treadmill or playing a game of basketball can be considered cardiovascular fitness.
Muscular Strength Building
By definition, muscular strength is the amount of force a muscle can provide with one full effort. For example, doing a single barbell bench press at the gym with a certain amount of weight is muscle strength.
Having muscular strength will help in everyday actions and activities like lifting yourself from a chair, picking up a box from the floor, or even running down the block to catch your bus.
When muscle strength is limited, it also limits some of your basic bodily functions, slows down your metabolism, and impacts proper alignment.
Body composition is one way you can measure the proportion of body fat to the lean muscle tissue in your body. This is a good way to measure your level of fitness. Your body mass index (BMI) also provides an indicator of your fitness levels.
Related to muscular strength building, endurance refers to the ability to sustain a constant and steady repetition of actions over an extended timeframe. A good example is a marathon runner who trains in a way to endure the 26.2-mile run. This requires muscle endurance in their legs and cardiovascular system.
In exercise, this refers to the range of motion in a set of muscles and joints allowing your body to move and stretch in multifunctional ways. When muscles are tight, it limits your potential for full functional movement.
In exercise or other physical activities, balance involves the ability to control your body whether it is standing still or in motion. It incorporates a set of coordinated skills that work simultaneously.
Static balance, or the ability to remain in a fixed position, suggests the ability to maintain stable, strong, and centered to hold a non-moving posture.
Dynamic balance is the ability to sustain a certain bodily posture while in motion. This would be key in activities like skiing, running, or walking.
One can train for physical power at the gym by lifting weights. It is related to strength but has a unique caveat. Strength in the gym is qualified as the ability to exert a certain amount of force before reaching resistance. Power, on the other hand, is the ability to exert that force in the shortest amount of time. As one trains for strength to overcome that resistance, one becomes more powerful by definition.
These components of fitness are relevant in most sports or other training activities and even in the practice of yoga
Fitness in Yoga
Although you may not raise your heart rate in yoga as you may in an aerobics class or exercising on an elliptical machine, yoga does incorporate cardiovascular endurance. Because there is a lot of focus on your breathing while in a yoga class, your cardiovascular system is positively affected.
In Hatha Yoga, a style of yoga that generally involves movement and breath, the instructor often provides “breath cues” as you move from pose to pose. For example, a yoga teacher may say “Inhale, raise your arms over your head” or “Exhale, fold forward.”
This rhythmic pattern of breathing and moving maintains balance through your body. Further, it allows for good blood and oxygen flow throughout your system providing healthy movement of your body, effective muscle engagement, and energy to progress through the yoga class.
Muscular Strength Building
In a yoga practice, you are using your bodyweight to build muscular strength. This is done mostly when you hold dynamic postures during the class. In some conditions, you will need to engage your muscles to effectively stabilize your body and hold the posture.
This can be seen in a challenging pose like Handstand, but even in other basic yoga postures, you will engage your muscles and grow stronger.
Warrior 2 Pose is a good example of a yoga posture where you can gain muscular strength in your legs. This is a lunging posture with your feet wide apart. The front leg is bent at 90 degrees while the back leg is straight.
The front foot is planted firmly into the yoga mat which stimulates flexion in your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. With the back foot strongly connected to the mat, it triggers the exterior portion of the thigh muscles and hips. When you hold a posture like this for some time, you are training your muscles to build the needed stability, strength, and balance.
Some yoga practices, like Vinyasa Yoga, consist of a steady and consistent flow of the body from pose to pose. This can be a long yoga sequence, for example, that incorporates many dynamic yoga positions. The more that you practice these routines, you also gain muscle endurance so that you can sustain the repetitive actions and transitions through the Vinyasa Yoga flow.
One reason people choose to practice yoga is knowing that they will become more flexible. That is true. When you engage in particular yoga postures, you stimulate muscle flexion causing more flexibility in your muscles.
This requires holding postures like Seated Forward Fold, for example, to increase the range of motion in your hamstrings. Due to the additional movement into and out of yoga postures, your joints increase in motion, too. The result is more fluid body movement and even an improved posture.
In yoga, balance is a benefit of the practice. Not only does balance entail balancing on one foot or stabilizing your body to secure a certain pose, but it can also mean feeling centered, focused, and aware. Standing on one foot in Tree Pose, for example, involves more than the muscular and skeletal ability to maintain the position.
Balance involves feeling grounded and rooted on the standing limb, your gaze and attention are often forward, and you maintain a sense of awareness of being in the present moment.
One gets to practice and master static balance and dynamic balance in most yoga classes, too. There are poses in which you are required to hold. This takes a certain amount of focus, stability, as well as muscular endurance, and strength to hold the yoga posture.
As you flow from one pose to another, it requires a level of coordinated dynamic balance so your body can gracefully move into the next pose.
It takes a level of power to practice some yoga poses. Just as in other physical exercises, power in yoga is being able to exert an amount of force in a short duration. Although you are not pushing weights in a yoga class, you are still exerting the force of your body weight as you move into some dynamic poses.
Pushing yourself up into Handstand requires a level of strength and power. Movements from Chaturanaga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) into Upward-Facing Dog is another good example of having the arm strength to effectively push yourself upward with dynamic force into this familiar yoga pose. With consistent practice, you will build the strength to develop more power to successfully execute some yoga poses.
If you were wondering if yoga can improve your overall fitness, the answer is clear: yes. Yoga holds all of the components of fitness to ensure progress toward a healthy body and mind. Visit your local yoga studio to continue your path to physical fitness.