Students often ask me if yoga is sufficient to develop overall fitness. Put more directly, if I practice yoga, can I cancel my gym membership? I always cringe a little before answering. As a yoga studio owner, the answer that would benefit me most is an enthusiastic, unqualified yes.
Unfortunately, the true answer is probably not. Yoga is a valuable tool. It builds muscular strength, flexibility, and emotional wellness. It also develops an important component of fitness often overlooked in the West: respiratory fitness.
That seems like a lot, and it is. All of the above are necessary. But they are not the complete fitness picture. Western forms of exercise provide an important and missing piece: cardiovascular--also known as aerobic--fitness, which is an essential component of heart health.
Cardiovascular Fitness versus Respiratory Fitness
The cardiovascular and respiratory systems are separate yet closely related.
Respiratory Fitness (Pranayama, Asana, Respiratory Therapy)
- Increases the respiratory system’s ability to oxygenate cells
- Improves respiration rate, profusion rate and oxygen utilization at a cellular level
Cardiovascular Fitness (Jogging, Cycling, Zumba)
- Raises the pulse rate
- Strengthens the heart muscle and increases circulation
Students often seem disappointed to learn this. After all, the ancient yogis used yoga (almost exclusively) to develop health and mental wellbeing. But those yogis lived in a different time, with completely different lifestyles. They lived very physical lives, practiced yoga, pranayama, and chant daily, and ate whole foods that were much less likely to cause heart disease than the overly-processed foods we consume now.
The typical American yogi, on the other hand is likely to work eight or more hours at her desk job, park as close as possible to yoga class, then go home to binge on potato chips while watching someone else chant on American Idol. Heart disease is epidemic in our culture. Frankly, we’d be delusional to compare our lifestyles to those of yogis thousands of years ago.
All that said, yoga is an important part of mental and physical wellness. I’d be the last one to minimize its benefits. Just ask my grandmother who died of emphysema, my friends with asthma, or my clients with anxiety and depression. Breathing is as important as life itself. In fact, breath is the essence of life.
Nonetheless, I still ride an exercise bike three times a week, and I wouldn't consider giving it up, in spite of my yoga practice. I’ve never claimed that yoga is a panacea able to cure all ills—but it can do a lot. Not just for the body, but also for the mind. I hope you’ll make it part of your wellness routine.
Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle, and check out Tracy Weber’s author page for information about her yoga and dog-related mystery series, the Downward Dog Mysteries.