Saturday, January 28, 2012

Does Yoga Count As Cardio? Do we care?

Just in from the Huffington Post: Does Yoga Count As Cardio?.

Yet another article about yoga written by someone who really doesn't know a helluva lot about yoga (but to be fair, he admits as much). The question: Does yoga raise the heart rate to cardiovascular levels and does yoga burn significant calories?

The author disputes claims that Bikram Yoga burns upwards of 1000 calories during the course of a 90 minute class. He argues this point by citing studies that examine calorie expenditure during a typical beginner's Hatha yoga class and a typical Astanga yoga class. Mysteriously, he attempts to prove this point by measuring heart rate levels during various activities, like sitting on the couch, and jogging.

Fair enough, but my understanding is that calorie expenditure and cardiovascular fitness are two entirely different issues. It's like saying "That's an apple because it's an orange." We're always burning calories whether our heart rate goes up signficantly or not. You just burned a couple of calories reading this blog post. If you're heavier or have a high metabolism, you burned more calories than someone who is slim or has a low metabolism, regardless of your heart rate.

But that's beside the point. The real benefits of yoga have nothing to do with cardiovascular fitness or calorie burn. I doubt many serious yoga practitioners are stepping on their mats with the intention of burning lots of calories. Though I don't doubt my heart rate goes up significantly during my Astanga Yoga practice, that's not the reason I practice. It's not even on the radar.

I feel like I just read an article deconstructing a visit to Santa Claus, elaborating on all the evidence that Santa isn't real, but ignoring the practical and entirely valid reasons people take their kids to see him anyway.

And it makes me just a bit sad that this article completely glosses over this point. I don't step on the mat every morning to 'burn calories' or 'raise my heartrate', nor do I seek to 'zen out' (as one commenter to the article so charmingly put it). My practice does make me stronger. It builds mental strength and clarity, self awareness and self-control. These are all good things too, they're not the primary reason I practice.

How many times do we need to say 'Yoga is not *just* exercise' before it starts to sink in to the collective consiousness?

If you asked me why I practice, I would struggle to put it into words. My practice has made me a better person in a thousand small, immeasurable ways. My daily yoga practice offers a structure to my life. It's helped me develop self-discipline. I'm also happier, more patient, less prone to anger, more sensitive to the needs of the people around me. I feel more at home in my body. I've learned to pay attention.

If I had to define it in one sentence, it would sound something like this: My practice connects me to something greater than myself; it gives me peace.

But let us suppose that reasons of fitness and weight loss *do* factor in. Here's where the article completely misses the boat:

- Practising yoga to lose weight is an exercise in futility, but so is running, or spending an hour on the stair-climber. Because exercise alone will not lead to weightloss. The weight loss formula is simple: Burn more than you consume. The best way to do this is by consuming less - in other words: moderating your food intake. If you want to lose weight, you'd best start with a food diary and dietary changes.

- Practising yoga can certainly raise your metabolism, especially practising a more vigourous style that emphasizes strength. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so if you build more muscle, your metabolism will inevitably go up which increase calorie burn during all activites.

- Practising yoga causes a suble mental shift, a state of great awareness. Often, overeating or emotion-triggered eating is a mindless act. Becoming more alert to the body's signals, more willing to face discomfort and more aware of our own resistance to change and difficulty can shift eating patterns. Nearly all daily yoga practitioners who I've spoken with cite changes in their eating habits that correlate with their yoga practice. Studies indicate that yoga can lead to significant behavioural changes, including our relationship to food.

Do you agree with this article? Why do *you* practice yoga? What benefits have come from your practice that the article doesn't mention?

Princess Fur finds that yoga enhances her ability to nap, particularly when I'm doing it. ;-)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Loo said...

I guess I'm in the "I don't care" camp. Jason Stein writes about this in his essay on Crossfit on his blog and in his book. It's a good read. If you DO care then it may come as a surprise where a yoga practice falls short in a purely physical fitness way. I sort of always knew this though. Nothing is perfect. I guess if my practice was super strong I might want to backfill with some cardio, but right now the practice is all I can do.

Branáin said...

I agree that yoga is not just about about the physical practice. I think it is still useful, however, to be able to quantify the physical benefits of yoga, including calorie expenditure, oxygen consumption, heart rate, etc. It will require more than just strapping on a heart rate monitor. I'd prefer to see a rigorous scientific study.

As for yoga and weight loss, yoga is actually beneficial for weight loss, but not because of the increased calorie burning. Eating fewer calories than you burn through activity is often easier said than done. If it were simple, then books about dieting wouldn't sell so well.

Practicing yoga as "focusing the mind on an object of your choosing" is a great way to start to de-link from eating. The more you practice yoga, the more you are able to maintain a steady state without relying upon external factors, such as eating chocolate, drinking, having sex, smoking.

As a yoga teacher, people often ask me things like, "do I have to stop drinking/eating meat/smoking" to be a serious yoga student? I tell them no, of course they don't. What I don't tell them is that regular practice will change their habits in subtle ways. In a year, they will wake up one day and realize that they don't need that extra donut to deal with stress.

Yolk E said...

I love the article's sad little footnote about how there are other reasons to practice yoga. The message is, go ahead and practice it if you wanna get flexible or calm yourself down, but go elsewhere if you want to lose weight.

The point about a regular practice encouraging better eating habits can't be emphasized enough. This definitely happened when I did Ashtanga.

Moreover, just because a summary of what happens in a yoga class (i.e., the part about Bikram) is exhaustive, it doesn't mean it's correct. When I took up Bikram, I did not alter my eating habits all that much (they weren't that bad to begin with) but still lost about ten pounds when I started Bikram (and I'm only 5'2). I've seen the same happen to other practitioner. You won't convince me that is all water weight!

What's with the anti-yoga bent these days?