Yoga Exercise Guide: Types & Benefits

Yoga Exercise

Yoga exercise is a great addition to any healthy lifestyle, but it's different than what most people consider as exercise. This article will provide an overview of those differences.

The Western Way

To the modern Western mind, exercise typically can mean one of two things: aerobic exercise or strength training.

Aerobic exercise is simply moving one's body with enough intensity to get one's heart rate at an appropriately rapid level, primarily at an exertion level that can be maintained for a reasonable period of time. Fast walking, jogging, and running can be aerobic exercises, as can rhythmic dancing, stairstepping, and bicycling. Aerobic exercise is thought to be superior to anaerobic exercise, during which an individual moves at a higher intensity for briefer periods of time, because it raises his or her metabolic rate. It also burns more fat over longer periods of time, thus it is the exercise of choice for people who are exercising for weight loss.

Strength or resistance training is simply a series of muscle-building exercises. Individuals strengthen and tone muscles either through lifting or pushing weights or against the resistance of a machine. Strength training is the exercise of choice for people who want their bodies to be a particular shape.

The Way of Yoga

Based on the definitions above, yoga isn't an exercise at all, since it is neither aerobic nor muscle-building. Yet, the practice of yoga has mental and physical health benefits that the other two types of exercise do not.

When most people hear the word yoga, they immediately think of the yoga postures, the twisted pretzel configurations that very flexible people can achieve. These postures, or asanas, are part of the foundation of Hatha Yoga, which also includes breathing and meditation as part of a regimen to attain spiritual enlightenment. Most modern practitioners of Hatha go through the asanas as part of a physical health program, and unfortunately spend little or no time on the more spiritual exercises.

Potential Benefits

Practicing the Hatha Yoga positions regularly provides proven health benefits. The following are just some of the observations by researchers in yoga studies conducted by the VA San Diego Health System, the UCSD Health Assessment, ACE Fitness, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

  • Simply achieving and holding the postures for a period of time increases joint flexibility and decreases muscular tension, a particular problem in our stress-filled lives.
  • Various postures also have benefits to specific bodily subsystems; for example, twisting or positioning the body into the postures actually performs a sort of massage on the internal organs, stimulating them in the same way that a massage relaxes and energizing the muscles in your shoulders and back.
  • Hatha yoga will also improve muscle tone, but will not cause muscles to "bulk up" as weight training will. In fact, bulky muscles can be a handicap to achieving some of the postures, since the muscles may literally get in the way. If you want to shape your body, you will have to add sculpting exercises to your yoga practice. outlines a number of other benefits some people experience from a regular yoga practice.

Types of Yoga

Yoga practitioners believe there are many reasons to try different styles, but often an individual will gravitate toward a discipline similar to his or her other exercise activities. For example, triathletes are accustomed to pushing their bodies to the limit, so they may seek out Power Yoga or Bikram Yoga to have the same type of dynamic experience.

However, the goal of yoga is to seek balance. It might be more beneficial for a triathlete to do a more gentle form of yoga, such as Yin Yoga or some type of yoga therapy, on recovery days to lengthen muscles and stimulate myofascial release in the deep tissues to ensure the body's systems repair well for the next performance.

Few personal trainers consider yoga to be aerobic cardiovascular exercise, but that doesn't mean you can't get a good workout with yoga. Practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga can develop strength through holding postures for up to eight breaths, and transitioning through poses through a series of Vinyasa flow movements. If you move through Vinyasa fast enough, with a breath that guides your pace, you can easily make this an energetic practice. Try starting each morning with 10 rapid Sun Salutations and see if you need a cup of coffee afterward!

If you really want to expand your physical possibilities, consider a form of Anti-Gravity Yoga. Often performed in a yoga swing, this practice combines graceful yoga poses with the power of aerial movement. Many people say that since they don't have to resist gravity, they reach deeper into postures, especially inversions, which can increase circulation and mental clarity.

The kriyas performed in Kundalini Yoga may seem like small movements at first, but many people report intense physical and emotional release from this practice. If you'd like your yoga routine to be a break from your regular exercise activity and have the ability to focus on a richer yoga experience, find a certified instructor to assist your journey.

In our article List Types of Yoga, we provide a thumbnail sketch of some of the more popular yoga styles and what you can expect from each one. This information may help you create a complete body movement rountine that accentuates the other forms of exercise you do throughout the week.

Learning Yoga

While a variety of yoga DVDs exist to guide you through the various postures of yoga, it's probably a good idea to start your yoga exercise practice by taking a class from a certified yoga instructor. Since your living room probably isn't lined with mirrors, you're unable to see yourself "from the outside" and will not know if you are in the proper form.

Working with an instructor will help you get the extra bit of curve in your bend, or might prevent you from over-extending and hurting yourself. You'll learn modifications and advances to aid your personal practice. Many people also find practicing in a group is more motivating that solo practice.

Once you have mastered the postures, you may want to add more yoga sessions to your schedule at home. Take time to master the breathing exercises as well, and incorporate meditation into your practice for the full yoga benefits to mind, body and spirit.

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Yoga Exercise Guide: Types & Benefits